Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What is Dead May Never Die: The Death and Rebirth of Theon Greyjoy

*Warning* The following contains spoilers from A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter. Also may contain inadvertent spoilers for HBO's Game of Thrones.

Theon in the North by Amok

Theon Greyjoy is one of the most controversial and divisive characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Theon starts out as a self-entitled jackass who literally wants to stab puppies the first time that we meet him. From there he goes on to become a turncloak, child-killer, and possible kinslayer. From the beginning Theon Greyjoy is a very difficult character to like. However, reading his chapters in A Dance with Dragons, he is also a character that it's very difficult not to feel sorry for.

In many ways this sort of divide represents the epitome of what makes George R.R. Martin's writing so brilliant. Something which, I personally feel, has been lost in translation with HBO's Game of Thrones. Cowards can be heroes, heroes can be villains, and villains, sometimes, can be redeemed. People often point to Ramsay Snow as an example of how "grimdark" ASoIaF is. To me, this is a misinterpretation of what Theon's chapters are really about in ADwD. Theon's arc is about redemption. In transitioning from Theon Greyjoy to Reek and back again he not only comes back to himself, but in doing so also comes into himself as Ironborn for the first time. To understand how, let us first take a brief review of a particular Ironborn ritual.

The Ironborn and Drowning

The Ironborn are a warrior culture that are united by their shared worship of a deity known as the Drowned God. Think Baptist Christianity being practiced by Vikings, if the Bible were written by H.P. Lovecraft. The following prayer is a central part of both the Drowned God religion, and Theon's character development ADwD.

What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.

Damphair by Donato Giancola
This prayer refers primarily to the practice of ritual drowning that plays a number of important roles in Ironborn culture. In addition to drowning their enemies as a form of sacrificial execution, the Ironmen themselves are also "drowned," both metaphorically, and sometimes literally. Children on the Iron Islands are anointed by or submerged in seawater as a form of baptismal "drowning." The holiest and most devout members of the faith, known as Drowned Men, are literally drowned in seawater and resuscitated by a priest via mouth to mouth.

The purpose of these rituals is to take away the fear of the drowning. The Ironborn are a seafaring warrior people, and their Valhalla lies beneath the waves, in the Drowned God's watery halls.

Consider the following excerpt from A Feast for Crows, taking place during the Ironborn attack on The Shields:

He vaulted over the gunwale, landing on the deck below with his golden cloak billowing behind him. The white roses drew back, as men always did at the sight of Victarion Greyjoy armed and armored, his face hidden behind his kraken helm. They were clutching swords and spears and axes, but nine of every ten wore no armor, and the tenth had only a shirt of sewn scales. These are no ironmen, Victarion thought. They still fear drowning.

A big part of the strength of the Ironborn is that many of them are absolutely fearless in battle. They aren't afraid of death, and this is symbolized in part by the fact that they've already "died" via ritual drowning. Hence the words "what is dead may never die." When a drowned man rises, he is therefore "harder and stronger" than those that have not already "died" (even in a purely symbolic manner).

You Have to Know Your Name

Smiler by Marc Fishman
The last that we see of Theon before the POV shift to Reek is during the sack of Winterfell by the Boltons. The very last thing that he sees before losing consciousness is his horse, Smiler, burning. This is symbolic of the impending destruction of Theon's own identity, as the most common physical characteristic that people associate with Theon is that he is constantly smiling. It's the very first thing recalled by Arnolf Karstark when Reek is paraded before him and Hother Umber by Ramsay.

It's a commonly held opinion among the fandom that AFfC and ADwD represented a relative dip in quality compared with the previous three books. Personally, I disagree. I think that the two most recent books are just widely misunderstood. They're transition novels, moving the story on from the War of the Five Kings, and setting up the War of Ice and Fire. One technique that Martin plays with in these transitional novels involves the naming of the titular characters in POV chapters. Depending upon the role that they are playing, or, more importantly, the tole that they are transitioning into, the chapters are given ambiguous names such as The Reaver, The Ugly Little Girl, or The Dragontamer. Names and identity are tremendously important in Theon's chapters, as foreshadowed as early as AGoT when he remarks that Hodor may not know much, but none could deny that he knew his name.

Over the course of ADwD Theon's POV chapters are given five different names, and in each of them we see him transition into a new role before finally coming back to himself.
  • Reek (3 chapters).
  • The Prince of Winterfell
  • The Turncloak.
  • A Ghost in Winterfell.
  • Theon


"Him? Can it be? Stark's ward. Smiling, always smiling." -- Arnolf Karstark.

TheonReek by Marc Fishman
We don't immediately know who we are dealing with when we first meet the unfortunate creature known as Reek, eating rats and whimpering in the darkness. The real horror and tragedy of these chapters comes not from the torture and degradation that Reek has been forced to endure, but from the gradual realization of who he really was.

Reek is everything that Theon was not. Theon was proud to the point of arrogance. He would mock Roose Bolton to his face, making jokes about leeches, and he would constantly boast of how close he came to crossing swords with Jaime Lannister in the Whispering Wood. He returns to the Iron Islands in fine clothes and jewelry, proclaiming himself a prince and expects everyone to bow and scrape to him. Reek is less than a dog. He considers the rat that he catches such a feast that it brings tears to his eyes, and he's terrified to even speak in Ramsay's presence, afraid that saying the wrong thing will cost him another finger. In fact, he panics when he even thinks the word 'Bastard' as he remembers that Ramsay is a Snow now, not a Bolton (again, we see the importance of names).

Ramsay's conditioning of Theon is more understandable here than it is in the show, because we see the ways that he stripped away the identity of Theon Greyjoy piece of by piece, ripping out the teeth that he used to smile with, castrating him, making him beg Ramsay to cut off his fingers and toes, and essentially turning him into an unrecognizable creature. Even When Ramsay sends him to treat with the Ironborn at Moat Cailin, he never calls himself Theon. He calls himself Balon's heir, but never uses the name Theon. All the while the narration refers to him as Reek.

"I am Ironborn," Reek answered, lying. The boy he'd been before had been Ironborn, true enough, but Reek had come into this world in the dungeons of the Dreadfort.

Even when Roose Bolton takes him away from Ramsay, Theon continues to deny his own identity, insisting that he is Reek and, more importantly, that the other was dead. Refusing still even to say his own name.

"Please m'lord, m'lady, there's been some mistake." He fell to his knees, trembling like a leaf in a winter storm, tears streaming down his ravaged cheeks. "I'm not him, I'm not the turncloak, he died at Winterfell. My name is Reek." He had to remember his name. "It rhymes with freak."

Now consider these words in the context of what it means to be Ironborn. Theon Greyjoy is dead. But what is dead may never die.

But Rises Again...

Her name is Jeyne, it rhymes with pain.

Bran the Wedding by Thrumugnyr
A popular interpretation of Theon's actions upon his return to Winterfell is that seeing Ramsay victimize another person galvanized him into action. This is the approach that HBO has decided to run with, and I do believe that Theon's sympathy for Jeyne as Ramsay degraded her and stripped away her identity played a part in his transition. He thought about mercy killing her the night of her wedding to Ramsay, and even of trying to kill Ramsay himself. But that was not the primary factor in Theon's transformation, which began in earnest before the wedding. I accredit this shift, rather, to Theon's return to his true childhood home, Winterfell.

The first hint that we have of Theon's shift in perspective comes in the Chapter titled The Turncloak. The chapter name itself is alludes to this, as his previous chapter had ended with Theon saying that the Turncloak was dead. We see it as well in the narration, which now refers to him as "Theon Greyjoy" rather than as "Reek" as it had in the previous chapters.

When "Reek" was in Moat Cailin, he pretended to be Balon's heir. When he came to Winterfell, he really did become Theon Greyjoy again, even if it took him a while to realize it. Despite having chosen his kraken blood, we see in these chapters how much Theon truly considered himself to be a Stark all along. He recalls how he used to fantasize that perhaps Lord Eddard would marry him to Sansa one day, and he wishes that he had died beside Robb at the Twins. When he visits the crypts with Lady Dustin, he refers to the ancient king Theon Stark as his "namesake." Giving away "Arya" to Ramsay as her father's ward also had a profound effect upon Theon. He even refers to himself as "a Stark at last" in reference to his now grey and white coloring.

They Know My Name by Thrumugnyr
Perhaps the most pivotal moment comes when Theon prays before the Heart Tree in Winterfell's godswood. The godswood is often presented as the heart of Winterfell (no pun intended). The grove itself is older than the castle around it. It was in the godswood where Ned first learned about Jon Arryn, and the thought of that place being burned is what moves Jon Snow to reject Stannis's offer of being made Lord of Winterfell. As Winterfell is being rebuilt, so too is Theon's old identity coming back (again, recall that Smiler, Theon's symbolic identity, burned while the castle burned around him). It would make sense, therefore, that Theon would feel at most in touch with his old self in the very heart of Winterfell.

When Theon is praying to the Heart Tree, he see's Bran's face in the Weirwood for a moment. In his grief and pain addled madness Theon thinks that he's seeing a ghost, before remembering that Bran isn't really dead. In reality Bran was seeing Theon through the eyes of the Weirwood, but was unable to communicate with him. Theon does, however, hear a whisper through the leaves. Only a single word: "Theon." Hearing his own name from the Old Gods, the Stark Gods of the North, is what completes the transition, bringing the man who was once Theon Greyjoy back to himself again.

The Ghosts of Winterfell

Theon's epiphany in the godswood occurs during his second to last chapter in ADwD, titled A Ghost in Winterfell. During this same time a number of killings take place throughout Winterfell, all of Frey or Bolton men. Some have theorized, based in part on the similarity to Arya when she was "The Ghost of Harrenhal," that Theon himself may have been committing the murders without being consciously aware of it in a theory known as Theon Durden.

While there are some things that seem to point in the direction of the Theon Durden theory, such as Theon losing time and the constant references to him still being able to use a dagger, I think it is more likely that the majority of the killings were carried out by the spearwives that came to Winterfell with Mance Rayder. The reasons that the Northern lords give for Theon's innocence make sense. He doesn't have the strength left, for example, to break Yellow Dick's teeth. If the chapter was titled "The" Ghost in Winterfell, then I might be convinced that it was Theon. But there are a number of "ghosts" present in this chapter, including:
  • Abel (an anagram for Bael the Bard).
  • Bran, through the Weirwood.
  • Ramsay's hounds, which each bear the name of a woman he murdered.
  • Theon himself.
  • The killer.
  • The hooded man.
  • The Stark ghosts from the crypts with the missing swords.

Now it's possible that Theon could have killed Little Walder, as it was mentioned multiple times how much the boy took after Ramsay, and even in his current state Theon should still have been able to overpower a small child (something also remarked upon at various points in the book). The spearwives deny responsibility for that killing, and Manderly seems just a bit too obvious for my liking. Personally I think that it was Big Walder that killed him. Big Walder becomes increasingly frightened by his cousin, and when he reports the death he is covered in blood. Little Walder's blood is frozen solid by the time that the others go to it.

Greyjoy Again, Harder and Stronger

"I had to have two heads, else they would have mocked me … laughed at me …"

Theon feared being laughed at by his kin so much that he murdered the Miller's family to cover up the Stark Boys' escape. After what Ramsay did to him, he's mocked and laughed at nearly everywhere that he goes as something less than human. But now he doesn't care, because he knows there are worse things out there than mockery.

"When you have known the kiss of a flaying knife, a laugh loses all its power to hurt you."

When the spearwives threaten to cut Theon's throat, he only smiles at them. When Stannis threatens to have him killed, Theon laughs in his face. He's not afraid of die anymore, or to be mocked, or damn near anything else that isn't Ramsay.

Asha and Theon Meeting by Mustamirri
When Theon first returned to Pike all of his concern was with appearances and his image as the prince of the Iron Islands. He was so disconnected from his roots that he didn't even recognize his own sister. When they meet again after his escape from Winterfell, she's the one who doesn't recognize him. Ramsay's torture turned his hair white, and the lack of sunlight gave his flesh the withered look of an old man. But Theon only smiles at her shock and calls her sister, remarking that this time he did recognize her. Their situation is turned around, and now he is the one coming from the position of knowing to her ignorance.

Theon's still afraid of Ramsay, as we see when he hisses at Stannis not to call him a bastard, but Ramsay is the only thing that he's afraid of anymore. Not dragons, not Others, not death. This is his real strength, the strength of the Ironborn. The Drowned Men don't fear death, because they've already died. Theon Greyjoy "died" and became Reek, and now that he's risen again, he's stronger than he was before.

What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.

Friday, April 1, 2016

On Steven and Lapis

WARNING: The following contains spoilers to Seasons 1 & 2 of Steven Universe, as well as speculation on future episodes.

One of the things that makes Steven Universe such a fantastic show, and by far the quality which I believe makes it so accessible to older viewers as well as younger ones, is the tremendous attention that Rebecca Sugar and her creative team pay to detail. There is often as much told through hidden clues and undercurrents as as there is through the overt narrative.

It's a story with multiple layers. Some of these will only be apparent to older viewers, such as the sexual undercurrents between various characters (Greg and Amethyst, Pearl and Rose Quartz, etc.), or the fact that Sour Cream may or may not have been conceived in the back of Greg's van. Others reveal themselves only upon multiple viewings, like the following line from Steven in The Return that pretty much predicted Peridot's arc in the second season:

No detail in a show like Steven Universe should ever be written off as inconsequential, because you never know what might be important later, and often times what's happening below the surface is as important as what takes center stage. That's what makes the show great. In a word:

Now a quick clarification before we begin, yes this what you might call a fan theory about the relationship between two characters, and yes part of it is going to be speculation on what might be romantic undertones therein. That being said, I'm not trying to "ship" these two characters per se. Not that I have a problem with shipping in general, but let's be honest, Steven is a 14 year old with the body of a 9 year old, and Lapis is an alien being that's thousands of years old. Any idea of something sexual between the two of them now is entirely creepy. This post isn't going to be about how great a couple I think they will make one day either, or anything subjective like personal chemistry. This is specifically about what I believe are contextual clues throughout the narrative that the writers may be planting as breadcrumbs to something of significance happening between the two eventually.

While Steven Universe does play around a lot with sexuality, I'm going to be keeping this as PG as humanly possible. That being said, we are going to be discussing sexual undercurrents as used as a plot device, so young'uns, ye be warned.

Beach Summer Fun Buddies

Lapis's introduction in the episodes Mirror Gem and Ocean gem is a pivotal moment in the series. It represents a turning point, both for the viewers and for Steven himself as we find out that there are other humanoid gems out there besides the Crystal Gems, and that not all of them are nice. This shift is symbolized at the end of the previous episode, An Indirect Kiss, when Connie removes the no longer needed pink lenses from her glasses and goes about wearing the empty frames (no longer seeing the world through rose-colored glasses).

One of the first things that Steven does after receiving the mirror (which contained Lapis's gem) from Pearl, is to go show it to Lars and Sadie. As they are all talking, Lars and Sadie each go on about their desire to find a romantic interest for the summer (Lars to be sleazy and Sadie to make Lars jealous). With his typical obliviousness to the sexual aspects of the conversation, Steven refers to it as a "Beach Summer Fun Buddy" (a play on the phrase "summer love" perhaps?) and leaves the two to argue, speculating that perhaps the mirror would guide him to his own BSFB.

It's shortly after this that Lapis (through the mirror) starts talking to Steven, and he refers to her (it) as his Beach Summer Fun Buddy. When the Gems find out that the mirror is talking to Steven and try to take it away from him, Steven (accidentally) slaps Garnet in the face and yells "No! It wants to be with me!" Before running out of the house and out onto the beach with the mirror.

This scene is significant for a number of reasons:
  • Steven refers to the mirror as his Beach Summer Fun Buddy, a phrase that had previously (albeit unknowingly) been coined based on a reference to Lars's sexual aspirations.
  • This is the first time we really see Steven rebel against the Gems (his parental figures).
  • The phrasing "it wants to be with me" has romantic connotations, especially when taken with the context of adolescent love and rebellion.

Once Steven is out on the beach we see him choose his Beach Summer Fun Buddy over the Gems when he decides to free Lapis rather than surrendering the mirror to be bubbled. Again this parallels the puppy love trope where teenagers will choose a new infatuation over their parents or family. A theme which is continued when Lapis tries to take Steven "home" with her into the ocean, saying "They won't let us leave together" (a play on the phrase "They won't let us be together"). The first of the two Lapis episodes ends, in the typical style of teenage love stories, with Steven being grounded for his actions.

Healing Lapis and Sexual Undertones

Now by far this is the section where I most expect to be called a pervert. I'll just begin by reiterating what I said earlier, that subtext is a tremendous part of the storytelling in Steven Universe. Oftentimes this takes the form of sexual innuendo, like Garnet's half of the fusion dance that forms Sugilite, or Amethyst's reference to having "seen Greg's junk" in the episode Maximum Capacity. Children's show or not, sexuality his big part of the storytelling here, and it's used to convey a number of messages, from LGBT acceptance to positive body image. And sometimes, it's used to convey something about two characters without overtly stating it, as I believe is the case when Steven heals Lapis in the following scene:

Watching this scene, there are a number of things that I'd like to focus on. First off, I found it to be somewhat suggestive that we never actually see Steven's hand touch her gem. Not that I'm suggesting that Steven did anything other than apply his healing spit to her cracked gem, but the camera work is reminiscent of the way that sexual (or violent) scenes were often depicted in the cartoon shows of the 90s and early 2000s (which Rebecca Sugar came up on and often plays Tarantino-esque homages to). We see Steven move his hand, and then the camera cuts to Lapis's reaction. Now compare that to this scene from Justice League. It was a common way of getting around censorship rules to convey something that only older audiences were ready for back in the day.

The general awkwardness of the scene is also reminiscent of the way that young, first time lovers interact. When Steven offers to heal her, Lapis is unsure of what she's supposed to do. She turns around to expose her gem for Steven, and in doing so also exposes the knot that holds her dress together. When she does this Steven acts abashed and rubs the back of his head uncomfortably. Their mannerisms could just as easily be applied to two teenagers in a hayloft, or in the back of an Oldsmobile parked above some starlit overlook. The fact that they're literally sitting above the entire world with the stars all around them also makes the scene seem pretty romantic.

Continuing along with the "young lovers" analogy, Steven's healing of Lapis is, like many a first time experience with physical intimacy, overly brief. Once it's finished (and not to be too gross, but the animation of her wings emerging is also pretty suggestive) the scene is presented in such a way as to be deliberately uncomfortable. Steven makes a joke that falls flat, and his eyes shift away from her face as if he's uncomfortable looking her in the eye. Lapis then flies off, departing Steven with nothing more than a brief "okay... bye." Such an abrupt departure seems strange, given the lengths that Lapis is willing to go to later to warn and protect Steven from Peridot and Jasper. I believe that it's meant to be uncomfortable, as two people can often be after a first intimate encounter, especially if one of them is inexperienced.

Do it for Him, That is to Say...

Moving on to something a little less PG-13, there are a number of parallels drawn throughout Season 2 and the latter parts of Season 1 that seem to foreshadow something deeper than friendship transpiring between Steven and Lapis. Most of these center around Steven's own parents.

The romance between Greg Universe and Rose Quartz set the stage for the majority of the series. Literally, their union produced the show's titular character. As such, a number of important plot points are linked to Rose Quartz, and to her relationship with Greg. Over the course of the show we're given the details of how they came together in bits and pieces. The above song, from the episode We Need to Talk, shows us a number of things. This was the episode where it was established that Greg and Rose first fall in love, emotionally "fusing" as Garnet described it. We also see the resentment that was brewing between Peal and Greg over the relationship, but the importance of this scene for our present purpose is in the repeated phrase "what can I do for you."

This is very similar phrasing to a song that Peal sings later when she's teaching Connie how to fight in the episode Sword to Sword.

Pearl's infatuation and loyalty to Rose Quartz has been well established throughout the series, and towards the end of this episode she breaks down and screams at Steven, accidentally calling him by his mother's name:

Later, in the episode Chille Tid, Lapis shouts the same thing at Steven while he pleads with her to tell him where she is so that the Gems can free her from Malachite:

Lapis's dedication to Steven is pretty clear throughout the series. We see here that she's even willing to trap herself at the bottom of the ocean with Jasper to protect him, despite having spent (presumably) thousands of years trapped inside of a mirror, and then once again spending time locked in a cell aboard Peridot's ship after her return to Homeworld. The fact that she uses the same phrasing as Pearl may be significant, as Pearl clearly harbors a more intimate infatuation with Rose Quartz than merely that of her "knight" and confidant.

This scene is actually only one of a number of clues in that episode that I believe are significant. The first time that Lapis shows up it's in one of Steven's dreams where she takes the place of Connie. Steven, in the dream, is expecting Connie to come pick him up for "the prom." When there's a knock on the door, presumably from Connie, Steven opens it to find Lapis standing there instead. This isn't the first time that a parallel is drawn between the way that Steven sees Lapis and Connie throughout the series, but more on that later.

The second time that Steven has a dream about Lapis, he wakes to see Pearl projecting images from her own dream out of her gem. In the dream Pearl tells Rose how wonderful it is just the two of them, without Greg around to get between them. The central image (left) from the dream is also a reference to one of the most iconic scenes from the movie Titanic, which tells the story of two people from different social castes that meet and fall in love, only for one of them to slip beneath the ocean and drown (at the time that this scene happens, Lapis is trapped beneath the ocean in Malachite). At the end of the movie, the female lead stands on the edge of a ship and drops a large blue gem called "The Heart of the Ocean" over the edge to slip beneath the waves.

What's important to remember when examining parallels between Pearl and Lapis, is that Steven and Rose have a more complex relation to one another than a normal mother and son. Steven has Rose's gem in his belly, the same place where she had it before she gave up her physical form. Pearl refers to a gem's physical form as an illusion. Gems are, to quote Yoda, ethereal beings. Garnet refers to them as being made of light, not flesh. The gem in Steven's stomach isn't just Rose's gem, it is Rose. And since he is half gem as well, that means that at least half of him is Rose as well. We see this referred to by Rose and Jasper, and eventually Steven tells the "cool kids" that he might be his own mother.

This is important to keep in mind when we go on to discuss what the future might hold for Steven and Lapis, and how his own journey mirrors that of his mother's.

Greg and Connie

Before we move on to the parallels between Steven and Rose, however, I want to take a moment to look at Lapis through the two humans in Steven's life, because the contrast between gem and human mentalities is an important part of the series.

In the episode Ocean Gem, Greg sees the pillar that Lapis makes of the ocean and says that it gave him an idea for an album cover. We eventually see the cover in the episode The Message, where he writes a song about her called "Water Witch." Steven takes issue with Greg's interpretation, saying that Lapis was only misunderstood. This continues the theme of all Steven's parental figures disliking Lapis while Steven defends her. Again, this hearkens back to the trope of adolescent love and the way that it often comes into conflict with the authority figures of a teenager's life. 

"I don't want you around that blue girl anymore, she's no good."

"Daaad, you just don't understand her!"

You get the idea.

In response to Greg's misinterpretation of Lapis, Steven writes his own song about her and about their friendship together:

Again, I think that this song is suggestive of something more than just friendship, in particular the final line where Steven sings that she "came around to me." It's also worth noting that one of the first things that Greg does after meeting Rose Quartz is to write a song about her.

Things start to get interesting as well when you examine the scenes where Lapis and Connie are both in Steven's mind at the same time. Oh, and before we move on, let's make it clear that Connie is Steven's girlfriend. They refer to each other as friends, but that's more U.S. sensibilities regarding children's shows than anything else. It's the same way that Rose Quartz says she wants to "play" with Greg, when it's pretty clear that they intend on doing a lot more than that. Steven is 14 years old and Connie is almost 13, kids date at that age and that's what they're doing.

The first thing that Connie says when she and Steven ride up to Lapis's ocean pillar together is "That's some magical destiny stuff right there." Steven's mysterious destiny is something that's constantly brought up by the Crystal Gems, though often without elaboration. During the ensuing battle, Steven and Connie try to fight Steven's water clone together, which almost kills them both. I've always found this fairly shocking, considering what Lapis is willing to do to protect him later, but this is also before Steven heals her.

When Lapis later sacrifices herself to protect Steven, fusing with Jasper and then using her powers to drag them both to the bottom of the ocean, Steven shortly thereafter gets a phone call from Connie. Connie is hysterical on the other end after getting a message from Steven that they all might die, and she's shouting at him to find out what's going on, but Steven ignores her and only looks sadly down at the waves lapping at his feet. It's a small scene, easily dismissed, but in show that pays as much attention to detail as Steven Universe, no detail should be overlooked. It's later in this episode that Steven tries to break up with Connie, but ultimately can't go through with it.

Finally, there was the previously discussed scene in Chille Tid, where Steven is waiting for Connie to come get him for the prom, only to open the door and find Lapis waiting for him instead. Throughout the scene Steven dreaming about what his life would be like if his family were human rather than aliens. Each of the crystal gems shows up in a human form, and Steven is on his way to the school prom (he has never actually attended school in real life). It's when the door opens and he sees Lapis that the normalcy of the dream is shattered, and Steven's alien life is brought center stage again. I think that this is tremendously important when we examine the direction that Steven's life is taking him. But before we look into Steven's future, we must first examine his past...

Rose Quartz

I'm of the firm belief that Rose is the key to understanding Steven's journey. In many ways his journey parallels hers, which makes sense because in a way he is her. Consider the extended opening that was aired at SDCC in advance of the Season 2 premiere:

Look at the change that we see Steven going through over the course of the video. He and the Gems are running along the beach, with Steven lagging behind. While this is happening we see a montage of Steven unlocking his gem powers, fusing with Connie, calling out Rose's shield, etc. and then he pulls ahead of the others. And then when each of the Crystal Gems sings about their reasons for fighting, Steven's is to grow into his mother's shoes. Observe, also, how some of the same scenes differ here from the first opening, Steven now smoothly warping with the other Gems instead of tumbling, him smiling when they ruffle his hair instead of scowling.

Rebecca Sugar has described Steven Universe as a coming of age story. The show is about Steven growing up and coming into his destiny, and thus far his growth has marked, not by the typical milestones of adolescence, but by him coming into his powers as a gem and learning to control these alien abilities. The duality of Steven's nature as part gem part human is one of the primary sources of conflict and growth throughout the series. Nobody, not even the Crystal Gems, knows what Steven can do, how he will grow, or what he will ultimately be capable of. As such, his character growth moves in tandem with him developing the gem side of his being.

Now contrast this with the journey of Rose Quartz, whose arc, as we understand it thus far, is about a gem giving up her alien nature and embracing humanity. When Rose gives up her physical form to become half of Steven, she in turn becomes human (or part human) herself. Consider what we know about Rose and the way that she viewed humanity, and you'll see that Steven's most prominent attributes are likely those that his mother saw in the human race as a whole. He's kind, and open minded, and he wants to be friends with everybody, though he's also ignorant of the universe around him, and he's disproportionately childlike for his age.

Steven's journey is the reverse parallel of Rose's. While Rose gave up her life as a gem to create human life, embracing humanity over her own alien existence, Steven is progressing further from his human side with every milestone that he reaches. Or, when viewing the two as a single entity, one could say that Steven's story is part of a larger arc, that of the Rose Quartz Gem and how it's journey is now coming full circle.

So What Does This Mean? (Beware Sailor, Here be Conjecture)

Thus far Lapis Lazuli has played a comparatively small part in the series, but has a tremendous fan following nonetheless. I refuse to believe that this is just Boba Fett syndrome. To believe that is to do Rebecca Sugar and the rest of the brilliant creative team that brings Steven Universe to life a great disservice. Look at the detail that has thus far gone into her character, the fact that her animation flows, almost like water when she walks. And not only is she the most powerful single gem that we've seen on Earth thus far, but she also has a knack for showing up at many of the more significant events in the series. If you look closely, she was even there when Ruby and Sapphire fused for the first time. Lapis's character is meant for something important, some role of significance in the series, and that role is sure as hell not fusion and chill at the bottom of the ocean.

And while we're on that topic, what was the point of her fusing with Jasper at all? Why not just trap Jasper in the ocean by herself? Or why not let Garnet poof and bubble her, as she seemed to have no problem dealing with Jasper back on the ship? How does creating an absurdly powerful and potentially hostile fusion do anything to keep Steven safe? The only conceivable reason that I can see in Lapis fusing with Jasper is to keep her character in limbo until the show is ready to bring her back. But for what purpose?

For one, looking back on the "Let me do this for you" parallel, I could see Lapis playing the Pearl to Steven's Rose. She's already shown a tremendous deal of dedication to Steven. She was willing to sacrifice herself to keep him safe, and even betray her Homeworld in the end. Like Rose Quartz, if Steven's destiny is to love a human (Connie), then Lapis may play the part of his confidant as Pearl did to Rose. Though, if you think that there was nothing romantic between Rose and Pearl, you haven't been paying attention...

However, I don't think that this will be the case necessarily. While there is a certain degree of poetry in Lapis being Steven's "knight," I don't think that Connie will wind up playing the role of Greg. Frankly I would be kind of disappointed if a show like Steven Universe, which seems to pride itself on defying conventions, has its protagonist ultimately wind up with his very first love interest. This was disappointing when it happened with Ross and Rachel as far back as Friends, and it's been an annoying and predictable cliche ever since. Greg and Rose admitted to having other lovers before they met each other, and I somehow doubt that Steven's first love will be his last love.

And even more than this, I think that it would fly in the face of the path that all of Steven's character development has taken him down thus far. Steven is becoming more gem-like as the series goes on, embracing his alien side. So what does this mean for Lapis and Connie?

Let's go back for a moment to the scenes where Lapis and Connie share space in Steven's mindscape, and think about what each might represent in the context of his journey. If Connie represents a sort of grounding force for Steven, a tether to his human half, as I believe she does, then it stands to reason that Lapis might represent the antithesis of this. In other words, I believe that Lapis represents Steven's gem side, drawing him progressively further away from his human half.

The first time that Steven meets Lapis, it's immediately after he heals Connie's vision, both unlocking a new gem ability, and removing the "rose colored lenses" from Connie's eyes. When the two of them are alone together, Lapis tells Steven that his family doesn't care about the gem species, and that she never believed in the Earth. The next time that Steven and Lapis come face to face after that, he also comes into contact with Peridot and Jasper, the the first two "bad" gems that we meet in the series. Again, we see Steven moving further away from his human half, as he tries to break things off with Connie when dealing with the fallout from this incident.

My own personal theory (and this is pure speculation on my part), is that the romantic undertones between Steven and Lapis may become more apparent as he comes to further embrace his alien nature, unlocking more of his latent gem abilities. Steven is 14 years old currently, and Cartoon Network already renewed the show through three more seasons. The issue of him being a teenager trapped inside of a 9 year old's body has already been addressed (again, through romantic connotations, this time with Connie). The more the show progresses, the more he will mature mentally, and I believe that this will eventually manifest through his physical form. I would be surprised if the "coming of age story" of Steven Universe completes its run without Steven ever physically growing up.

I think that Lapis represents Steven's alien half, the part of himself that he's been growing into since he came to live with the Crystal Gems. In the same way that he moved away from his human father to embrace his alien family, I think that so too will he and Connie eventually drift apart, and as this happens, Lapis will loom larger in his life as a presence. Do I think that the two of them will eventually be "together" in that way? I don't know. As I said from the beginning, I'm not here to "ship" anybody. But I think that the future does hold something in store for Steven Universe and Lapis Lazuli. Whether this is romance, fusion, friendship, or something else remains to be seen. For the time being, we'll just have to keep watching.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Stephen King Re-Read Part Four: Rage

I'll admit, I was unsure about whether or not I should include this one in the re-read. For one, King himself has taken this book out of print and I was concerned that some might not be able to get their hands on it. More than this though, the subject matter is something that, for obvious reasons, is going to read a lot differently in 2016 than it did when King first published it in 1977. However, if we're going to do a full Stephen King re-read, then that means a full re-read, which includes Rage.

Rage was the first of seven novels that King wrote and published under the pen name Richard Bachman. One of the five novels that preceded Carrie in creation, if not in publication, King started writing Rage in high school, and describes it as an attempt to deal with his own frustrations and pains in transitioning to adulthood. It's a novel that, along with the short story Cain Rose Up, will be a lot more disturbing now than when it was initially written.

If a high school student wrote something like this today, it would be a huge red flag, and I think that this shift in perception that's occurred since King first wrote Rage is impossible to ignore. School shootings are a fact of life now. A week scarcely goes by without some kid shooting up a classroom in some part of the country, which is something that nobody could have seen coming in the pre-Columbine years when a young Stephen King was first graduating college.

Part of the reason that King himself took the book out of print is because there was supposedly a connection between it and at least one actual school shooting. Whether or not there's any validity to this is a different conversation. What we're here to do is examine the book itself, but in doing so the greater social issues surrounding school shootings are no doubt going to come up.

As far as the story itself goes, it's alright I suppose. Not King's worst story, though certainly not his best either. It's clearly something written by a young author, one who hasn't yet mastered the craft and is still trying to find his literary voice. If nothing else it's certainly a story that makes one consider the nature of rage, and how people deal with long-festering anger, as well as the tragic consequences of allowing such feelings to gestate unheeded.

Charlie Decker's hostage situation is treated as a cathartic experience, with each of the students using it as an outlet to unleash their own negative feelings over their lives. In the end it's the straight man, Ted Jones, that the classroom turns against, representing the rejection of social norms. Though reading it now, the story obviously differs jarringly from the tragic narrative with which we've all become familiar, taken in the context of when King first wrote it, Charlie Decker seems like a dark-side-of-the-moon metaphor for the death of the counterculture movement. Consider the way that Ted Jones is attacked in the end, covered with ink and made to look hideous and deranged, revealing the absurdity of social conformity for its own sake.

All in all I found Rage to be a strange story. It's worth reading for any long time Stephen King fan, but I don't think that King was wrong for taking it out of print. In a way the story was way ahead of its time when it was first written, though now it comes off as glaringly dated.

A Word on the Recent Dark Tower Castings

*Be Advised* The Following Contains Minor Dark Tower Spoilers

Are you telling me that the studios have so little respect for King's source material that they're going to make the Gunslinger . . . British!?

Personally, I couldn't care less what color Roland Deschain's skin is. Unless somebody has a TARDIS or a Delorean with which they can go back in time and snap up a young Clint Eastwood, I really couldn't think of a better actor to play the Gunslinger than Elba (with the possible exception of Javier Bardem). And yet, for some reason, thousands of people have taken to their keyboards in utter outrage over the casting choice. To which Stephen King himself had the following response:

But what does he know about The Dark Tower really, he just wrote the damn things...

The most popular complaint against Elba's casting seems to be that the Gunslinger's change in complexion irrevocably alters the dynamic between Roland Deschain and Detta Walker in the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three. Setting aside the fact that you could simply replace the words "honky mafa" with "uncle tom" and probably have the exact same scene, I think that the primary problem with this argument (and most others that decry changes to the source material) is that it is impossible to make a Dark Tower movie without changing large portions of the story.

Consider the nonlinear way in which the story is told, and the fact that 80% of one of the books is a flashback, and a flashback within a flashback. Consider the fact that King actually writes himself into the story in the latter books, and the fact that large portions of the early ones feature internal telepathic conversations between characters. Finally, consider the fact that there are a number of characters and plots that interconnect in the Dark Tower series which currently belong to other studios.

There are going to be changes to this story, there just have to be. It's too vast, to weird, and too meta to ever work in Hollywood. And that's fine. Making a different story on the big screen doesn't take anything away from the books that we all know and love. I plan on enjoying these movies for what they are, and just taking it as an alternate tale of Roland and his Ka-Tet. There are other worlds than these after all. After an Oscars ceremony so white that I thought somebody poured bleach all over it, I think that it's refreshing to see a person of color receiving such a prominent role in a beloved franchise. Idris Elba is a tremendous actor, and I look forward to his interpretation of the character.

And as excited as I am for Elba, I am twice as pumped for Matthew McConaughey as Randall Flagg. If you asked me this in 2013, I would never have thought that the Lincoln Lawyer guy could pull of the Dark Man, but over the past few years McConaughey has blown us all away with his roles in movies like Interstellar and The Dallas Buyers Club, and of course his mind blowing performance as Rust Cohle in HBO's True Detective.

What makes doubly excited is that McConaughey will be playing Flagg in the movie adaptations not only of The Dark Tower, but also The Stand. You know what that means? Expanded universe baby! McConaughey has the intensity to bring Flagg to life, and even redeem the character from his mediocre exit in the seventh Dark Tower book.

Shake the hand that shook the world. Alright, alright, alright.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hulu's 11/22/63 - Early Thoughts

This is a series that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. As many of us constant Stephen King readers by now know, movie or television adaptations of his work tend to be hit or miss. Sometimes you get a Misery or a Shawshank Redemption, and other times you get Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return. When this project was first announced, I was beyond thrilled. In addition to being a personal favorite of mine, 11/22/63 is really one of King's overall best novels, and by far the best one he's written in recent years.

Left to right: James Franco, Stephen King, and J.J. Abrams
As more news came about this project, the more optimistic I became. Hulu brought an all-star cast and crew to the table, with J.J. Abrams directing, and the inspired choice of James Franco for the story's lead, Jake Epping. I also believe that a miniseries works much better for adapting a long novel like this than a movie, and a story like 11/22/63 doesn't need some eight figure Hollywood Budget budget to pull off. And of course Netflix and Amazon have certainly set the bar high for original programs produced by digital streaming services.

Last night, after a long wait and many high expectations, the first episode has finally aired. Amazon and Netflix typically drop a full season of one of their shows all at once, embracing the habit that their viewers typically have of binge-watching shows over a single week. Hulu does things differently, releasing a single episode per week, more like traditional networks, so rather than offering up a review of the whole series, as I had hoped, I'll be dropping my early thoughts and impressions here, and updating them as the series progresses.

As to that, after viewing the first episode, The Rabbit Hole, my feelings are . . . mixed.

The talent assembled for this project is nothing short of staggering, and the directing, acting, and cinematography are everything I would expect from an all-star cast such as this. In particular the shifts in tone, from the sunny optimism in "the land of Ago," to the slow and menacing presence of Little Eddie the bookie, provided an immersive atmosphere worthy of King's original novel.

Unfortunately for all the points that The Rabbit Hole gains for acting and atmosphere, it loses for pacing and storytelling. The first episode felt extremely rushed, and it seemed like a lot of King's original material was being pushed aside to make room for hokey or nonsensical subplots born in the writer's room.

Now bear in mind, there are always going to be some changes when adapting a story across different mediums. There are some storytelling techniques that are used in books that aren't available in movies or television, and vice versa. With TV shows in particular, which boast significantly smaller budgets than movies, there are sometimes plot elements that have to be changed for monetary reasons. The best adaptations are almost always those which stay truest to the books (Blade Runner notwithstanding), but a writer or directer that treats the source material as unimpeachable or sacred will quickly see their project fall apart over practicality issues alone.

The problem comes, however, with the fact that television writers often have less intellectual respect for their audiences compared to novelists. We're living in what many are calling the Golden Age of television, and with the explosive popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones, we are also seeing a lot of novels (and comic books) being adopted for TV. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend lately of dumbing down material, either because writers think that the average television viewer won't be able to understand a complex story, or to convey a sense of false drama because we're just too dim to be invested in the story based on its own merit. The latter, I think, is the crux of The Rabbit Hole's pacing issues.

There's very little action during the first fourth or so of King's novel. Much of the plot is dedicated to Jake's planning with Al, trial and error with the time portal, and his exploration of and acclimation to the land of Ago. King's vision of 1958, seen through Jake Epping's contemporary eyes, is rivaled only by his descriptions of rural New England in stories like 'Salem's Lot and One for the Road. Without idolatry or adulation, King gives us an endearing yet honest vision of a simpler time, warts and all. We get the clean air and root beer right along with segregation and the Cold War. Jake's conflicting feelings about this time is really what puts us behind the proverbial wheel, and King accomplishes this very well.

The show, by contrast, skips over most of this is in a brief montage and some expositional narration on Al's behalf. Had the plot been pressed for time, this might be understandable (though I find this hard to accept in an eight-episode miniseries), but it seems that most of the time made up skipping over the source material is dedicated to subplots that are artificially inserted into the narrative in a lazy attempt to get people's hearts racing.

Did anybody really buy, for example, that Jake would bring a knife back in time with him that had the name and dates of the Vietnam war on it? Or, can you think of a more cliche way of escaping a violent bookie than by distracting him with a video on a smartphone (which somehow was able to stream in 1960)? I won't even get into the Benny Hill chase scene where a schoolteacher from Maine almost escapes the Secret Service, or what Jake hoped to accomplish by calling his father up on the phone, and even going so far as to call him "Dad."

I can't help but think that these scenes were inserted only because the studio felt that audiences would tune out if they were bombarded by too much political backstory, or travel scenes, or nuances of the less sexy parts of Jake's quest. If there's one lesson that we can take, however, from a show like AMC's Breaking Bad, it's that audiences are willing to A) use their brains while watching television, and B) wait for the pig payoff.

Overall I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first episode of 11/22/63. Part of this, I suspect, is due to the high expectations I had going in. As far as your typical Stephen King adaptation goes it's okay. Not the worst, but certainly not up to par with the best either. It was better than Under the Dome, that's for damn sure, but it also had a much better story to draw upon, and (with the exception of Dean Norris) a better cast and crew to bring the material to life. Whether or not 11/22/63 lives up to its own promise remains to be seen. I'm still optimistic, but my enthusiasm has dulled somewhat after the first episode.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stephen King Re-Read Part Three: The Shining

What can I say about The Shining that hasn't already been said? Haunting, terrifying, and impossible to forget, this is one of Stephen King's most deeply personal works, and rivaled only by IT as the most iconic novel of his career. I don't think one can really examine King's Shining without talking about Kubrick's, but we'll get into that towards the end. For now, we're talking about the 100%-Stephen-King-original-accept-no-substitutions version of The Shining, where Wendy is a three dimensional character that does more than just scream, Jack has an actual arc, and it's a roque mallet, not an axe.

While The Shining is of course a ghost story, the real heart of this novel is the internal struggles of the Torrance family. Wendy struggles to keep her family together while shielding Danny from his abusive father, and Danny struggles to reconcile the father that he loves with his visions of impending doom. But it's Jack's struggle that really stands out to me, especially upon re-reading the novel after learning about Stephen King's own history with drugs and alcohol. In this way the Overlook Hotel is symbolic, with the eventual external conflict between Jack and Wendy contained inside the snow-buried hotel, while ghosts flit about and there's a time-bomb waiting to go off in the basement. It almost perfectly mirrors Jack's struggle with addiction, his inner demons that surface in the face of sobriety, and even his explosive nature.

A lot of Stephen King fans tend to skip over his non-fiction books, and since this re-read his about his novels, there won't be a post dedicated solely to any of them. I will, however, take a brief moment here to mentioned the book On Writing. King wrote most of this book shortly after the car accident that almost took his life in 1999. In fact, this was the first book that got him back at his writing desk when he was thinking about retirement (a small portion of it was written before the accident). Half instructional guide for aspiring writers and half memoir of King's own life, it's in On Writing that, perhaps fueled by his recent brush with death, King gives us the most raw and intimate look at his own fight for sobriety, and early frustrations as a fledgling writer.

Seen through this lens, Jack Torrance's struggle with alcohol can be seen as a manifestation of King's own battle with addiction. Ditto Jack's desperate desire to write a good play after he loses his teaching job. People often (unfairly, in my opinion) accuse King of writing himself into his stories. The latter Dark Tower books notwithstanding (we'll get to that later), I don't think King is any more guilty of this than your average writer. I think all of his author protagonists have a bit of King in them, but they're also all unique characters in their own right, and each has something different to say about King as a father, husband, and writer. King himself admitted that Jack Torrance is a very autobiographical character, though he hadn't realized it at the time when he was writing The Shining. When considering this, The Shining takes on a whole new dimension, especially regarding Jack's slow decline over the course of the book.

The Wasps:

One of the most interesting questions that I found myself speculating on when re-reading Jack's character arc, is just how much of what he did was the Overlook, and how much was his own subconscious demons coming to the fore. The particular scene that made me question this was the wasps that wound up stinging Danny.

The implication was always that the hotel reanimated the dead wasps after Jack killed them, but we never actually see him gas the nest. The last we see is him retrieving the canister of poison, and then the scene changes. But I always thought it was curious that the first thing Jack does after his son gets stung is to try and get some money out of it. And then of course we learn later that Jack's own father showed him how to temporarily knock out wasps with smoke. With the cyclical nature of demons that are passed down from parent to child (a theme further explored in Doctor Sleep) I don't think it's terribly unlikely that King might have been hinting that Jack, on some unconscious level, set Danny up to be attacked by the wasps.

Continuing with Jack's father, I think it's also significant that he would set the wasp nests on fire after he put them all to sleep. If the wasps were a manifestation of Jack's inner demons, then his father burning the nest could be a symbolic foreshadowing of the end of the book when the Overlook burns, the hotel here representing Jack himself, wholesome on the outside but with a troubled past, plenty of inner demons, and an explosive nature.

It was also strongly hinted that the incident with the wasps wasn't the first time that Jack unconsciously did something to hurt somebody. Even before his beating of George Hatfield, I think it was implied that Jack was indeed resetting the timer during the school debates, without even necessarily realizing it, his resentment of Hatfield being evident well before their altercation in the school parking lot.

Kubrick's Shining:

Jack's lack of a character arc in the film adaptation is, I think, what a lot of long time book fans have trouble with. In the film Jack is crazy from the very beginning. There's no real indication that he has any kind of love for his son, and Wendy seems terrified to even speak around him. Nicholson certainly gives a good performance, but he's playing a time-bomb waiting to explode, not a loving father and husband that's pushed over the edge by circumstances and an evil hotel. There's no humanity to the character.

And therein lies the greatest difference between Kubrick and King's versions of The Shining. There's no humanity to any of the characters. Some people say that there's no emotion in Kubrick's version at all, but I don't think that this is true per se. Kubrick's Shining is certainly very emotionally evocative, even if the characters themselves don't exhibit the most realistic emotional spectrum. Visually, the movie is brilliant. Like most of Kubrick's films, The Shining is essentially poetry for the eyes, but the heart of what really made The Shining brilliant as a novel is gone. There's no struggle with the Torrance family here, either internal or otherwise. And of course I think that the accusations of movie Wendy being a misogynistic character are very valid, especially given what a fighter she is in the book.

King himself describes the novel and film as hot and cold, respectively. Though I think that King often judges the adaptation a bit harshly (especially since I've never heard him complain as much about other films based on his novels, many of which are just terrible), but in this I think that he's right, and not just given the ultimate fate of the Overlook. Kubrick's movie is very emotionally detached with respect to the characters, and evokes the emotions of the audience through unsettling and often upsetting visual techniques. King's novel on the other hand enthralls the audience by putting us inside the skins of the Torrance family. We feel Jack's struggle with his demons, and we share his frustrations over his play. We share Wendy's fear and apprehension, and Danny's confusion at the loss of the family unit that's always been there for him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and quite possibly the greatest director of the twentieth century. And despite the differences from the novel, he did produce a damn fine movie in The Shining. I've always thought it was strange, therefore, that King so often expressed dislike for this movie, and not something like Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (which, yes, is a real thing). After re-reading I think that part of it is just how personal a novel The Shining was for King, and for many of us constant readers as well. Regardless, I think that the film is the film, and that shouldn't impugn upon our appreciation of the novel.

Continuity and References:

A number of characters and locations introduced in The Shining will come to appear in later King stories (more on those when we get to said stories), and of course in 2013 there was a direct sequel, Doctor Sleep. Most prominent among these, I think, is the Shine itself for which the novel got his name.

One of the most common hallmarks in King's stories, right up there with author protagonists and the state of Maine, is the sort of psychic phenomenon that Dick Hallorann calls the Shine. We often meet characters who just sort of know things that they ought not to, or have abilities that are never explained (such as Carrie White). In King's next big novel, The Stand, for example, Mother Abigail mentions that clairvoyance such as what she experiences was referred to by her own mother as "the shining lamp of God." And of course in Doctor Sleep many types of magic in the Stephen King mythos are attributed to the Shine, but more on that when we get there.

I also thought that the Overlook Hotel was very reminiscent of the Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot. Both of them are frankly terrifying, and seem to have ghosts that attract outside monsters to their locations (Barlow and the True Knot). Even the name "The Overlook" reminded me of the way Ben describes the Masrten House, as a "dark idol" looking over the town of Jerusalem's Lot. I've always liked the idea that the two locations might be twinners, as many suspect of The Tower and The Talisman. Of course, I'm not entirely sure that they take place in different worlds. It's something I'll try to keep track of as we move forward. 


What we have here is essentially the iconic haunted house story that came out of the twentieth century. This is one of the books that made King a superstar, and no Stephen King collection, or horror collection in general, is complete without The Shining. This is the sort of horror where the supernatural elements enhance the existing story. If you took away all of the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, you would still have a damn compelling family drama about addiction and ambition, and the fallout that these forces can have on a person's loved ones. That's the kind of story that King excels at.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Fan Theory: Dennis Killed Brian LeFevre

*Be Advised* The following post contains some graphic material, including references to sexual violence and murder.

For more than ten years now, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has pushed the boundaries of comedy, network sensibilities, and good taste in general. When Sunny first came on the air, the network billed it as "Seinfeld on crack," taking the four utterly repugnant main characters and their rampant drug use, violence, and general debauchery and putting it center stage. And of all the maniacs that have stood behind the bar in Paddy's Pub, none are quite so frightening as the self-titled Golden God himself, Dennis Reynolds.

Longtime fans of the show are by now all too familiar with Dennis's constant brushes with sexual depravity, and his occasional forays into outright psychopathic behavior. For years this was simply one of those thematic undertones peppered throughout each season like breadcrumbs, similar to Mac's repressed homosexuality and the sexual tension between Charlie and Dee. Fans have often speculated on just how far Dennis may have taken this off screen, and upon a recent re-watch of the series I believe I've discovered the first actual murder that he committed. The victim? Brian LeFevre.

Before examining this theory, however, lets briefly go over Dennis's history and the lead up to why I believe that he killed Mr. LeFevre.

The Implication:

This charming little scene actually tells us quite a bit about Dennis's character, and it does so on a couple of different levels. First and most obvious is what we see on the surface. Dennis exhibits some disturbing behavior here, revealing a plan to get women alone in the middle of the ocean and making them afraid for their own safety for the express purpose of pressuring them into sex. This isn't the only time that Dennis would use fear to get women into his bed either. In the season 10 episode The Gang Group Dates Dennis blames his low rating on a dating website on the women feeling "too safe." Later in that same episodes he flies into a paranoid rage in a crowded restaurant and starts pointing at women and screaming "I'll rate you, I'll rate you!" He does this in such a way that the word "rate" sounds strikingly similar to the word "rape." When explaining the first "N" in the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, he's shown calling a woman up and threatening her life with a voice disguiser, so that he can get into her apartment under the guise of protecting her.

What I find to be of even greater significance here, however, is his word choice in the above video. "The implication," in addition to being a strategy that he employs to get women, also perfectly describes the way that hints are dropped about Dennis's character over the course of the series. These are at first subtle in early seasons, such as the season six episode The Gang Gets Lost in the Woods, when Charlie compares Dennis's methodical nature to that of a serial killer, which Dennis takes as a compliment, or the season three episode Dennis Looks Like a Registered Sex Offender (the title of which speaks for itself). However as the show progresses we are more and more directly shown that Dennis may be capable of real violence, culminating in the season 10 episode Psycho Pete Returns, where Dennis is diagnosed by a psychiatric doctor as (according to Dee) an "actual psychopath."

Part of the reason for this is likely chalked up to the show's general descent into chaos, airing material that pushes the envelope a bit more with each season. However, it also fits in with Dennis's character to slowly and methodically work his way up to something. We see this in the season seven episode Thundergun Epxress, where Mac criticizes how long it takes Dennis to sleep with women (we also see this on one of his sex tapes in the season eight episode Charlie Rules the World), and in the season ten episode Ass Kicker's United: Mac and Charlie Join a Cult, where he describes manipulation as a process that takes years of patience. It makes sense then, that Dennis's progression from fantasy to actual murder would be a slow process that happens over the course of several years. Take, for example, the following clip which contains two scenes from seasons seven and eight respectively, and see how he slowly progresses from fantasy to reality.

Dennis and Skin:

As far back as season three, Dennis has shown himself to have a disturbing infatuation with skin, both human and otherwise. The most disturbing example of this is in the video below, from the season ten episode Psycho Pete Returns, where he threatens to skin Dee and turn her into a lampshade. In the season eleven episode Frank Falls Out the Window, Dee confronts Dennis on his dream of being a veterinarian, saying that she thinks he only wants to become a vet so that he can "keep the skins." The conversation quickly devolves into a screaming match when she follows this up by telling him that he's going bald, but not before Dennis admits that he is indeed very fascinated by skins.

One of the earliest references to Dennis's obsession with skin, which I think a lot of people miss, is in the season three episode The Aluminum Monster vs Fatty Magoo. In a brief scene towards the end of the episode, a number of parallels are drawn between Dennis and Buffalo Bill, a serial killer from the movie Silence of the Lambs that wears the skins of his victims.

  • Both men are naked and applying lipstick in front of a mirror.
  • Both men are about to dress up as women.
  • Both men are listening to a song from the 80s about love.
  • Both men are softly whispering affirmations of self-confidence about how sexually attractive they are.
Additionally, Buffalo Bill, according to Hannibal Lecter, wants to wear the skin of his victims to become another person. This, along with Dennis's infatuation with human skin, will be very important in Dennis's possible murder of Mr. LeFevre. But before we get to the reasoning behind Dennis's killing fantasies, let's go back to where they may have started...

Gary the Serial Killer:

Dennis starts out in the beginning of the series as an overly vain womanizer with a frat boy's mentality toward sex. It's only in mid and latter seasons that we are given hints that he may in fact be dangerous. When wondering about the reasons for this, I found myself thinking of a story I heard about a thirteenth century serial killer named Gilles de Rais. De Rais was a French nobleman and the right hand man to Joan of Arc, and by all account a virtuous individual (at least with regards to the way that the gentry viewed virtue in the middle ages). He became one of history's most notorious monsters quite by accident, after a group of con artists masquerading as alchemists convinced him to murder a child while experimenting with necromancy. De Rais discovered from this that he enjoyed killing, and went on to become one of histories earliest recorded serial murderers. If Dennis is the Gilles de Rais of our scenario, then his alchemist would be Dee's former neighbor, Gary.

We first meet Gary in the season three episode, Mac is a Serial Killer, where the Gang suspects Mac of a series of murders that we later find out were committed by Gary when the Gang discovers "about fifteen severed heads" in his freezer. Though Gary is only around for the one episode, after which he is most likely either in prison or dead after Frank attacks him with the chainsaw, I think that the experience had a very profound effect on Dennis in a number of ways.

For one, during the episode itself Dennis and Dee try to "get inside the mind" of the serial killer in order to find out who it is and clear Mac's name. They manage to do this by purchasing (stealing) murder weapons, dressing up as a painter and psycho clown, and going out to stalk a victim. In addition to coming up with a surprisingly feasible backstory and methodology for his killer, Dennis becomes extremely excited about the idea of strangling and dismembering the Waitress. He then gets overtly disappointed when Dee says that they can't really kill her.

We see the episode with Gary referenced most recently in the season eleven episode, Chardee Macdennis 2: Electric Boogaloo, where Dennis sculpts a woman's head in a freezer when prompted to mold something that represents "love." His excuse is that "it represents the preservation of love for ever and ever" (this is important for the section regarding Dennis's psychotic break).

Some have speculated, based on this last fact, that Dennis may have been the real serial killer all along, and that he framed Gary. Personally I don't think this is likely. The whole misunderstanding with Mac and Gary happened because Dennis pointed out that Mac came home late the previous night, causing Frank to suspect that Mac was the killer based on him being out while the most recent murder was taking place. This means that Dennis was home while the murder was happening because he knew that Mac wasn't. I also find it hard to believe that Dennis could have been so easily dispatched by the Waitress with a can of pepper spray if he'd already killed up to fifteen women.

More likely, I think, is the idea that Dennis was inspired by Gary. Almost all serial killers start out fantasizing, and when that doesn't do it anymore, they graduate to the real thing. I think Dennis got such a high off the stalk and planning that he and Dee did to fake-kill the Waitress that he kept running with it, crafting more and more elaborate fantasies, such as storing zip ties and plastic wrap in his car, and describing to Mac what they could potentially do with women trapped out on the open ocean. He did this for five seasons until the opportunity arose for him to kill his first real victim: Brian LeFevre.

Brian LeFevre:

In the season eight episode, Frank's Back in Business, the Gang finds the wallet of a man named Brian LeFevre. After boosting the cash, credit cards, and baseball tickets found inside, Dennis, Mac, and Dee soon find themselves in a luxury box with a pair of business executives that are in town to court Brian LeFevre. Dennis takes this as an opportunity to become Brian LeFevre, posing as him for the rest of the week. Dennis also invited Mac and Dee to "get off" with him by taking part in the charade. Some, as it turns out, were willing to take this farther than others...

Dennis describes the experience of "getting off" as the thrill of becoming another person by "getting inside of their skin." The wording of this, "getting inside their skin," recalls to mind Dennis's previously mentioned fetish. Considering this, when we find out at the end that the real Brian LeFevre was murdered right outside Paddy's Pub, it isn't that much of a stretch to suspect that Dennis may have had something to do with it. With this in mind, consider Dennis's reaction to hearing Charlie and Mac recap LeFevre's death.

As Charlie and Mac are describing the circumstances of the real LeFevre's death, Dennis becomes progressively more and more aroused, finally "climaxing" when they show his severed finger (which Charlie cut off in the morgue). This is very similar to the way in which real serial killers gratify themselves when reliving their crimes (also the reason that many of them take trophies, such as the severed finger). Furthermore, his choice of Dee as a companion reflects what may have been his original fantasy, when the two of them stalked the waitress in Mac is a Serial Killer.

Now all of this is plausible, but still probably seems like a stretch. However, the show does drop one MASSIVE clue as to Dennis being the real murderer. When describing how the police believe that the murder went down, Charlie says that the real Brian LeFevre was stabbed to death by "a crackhead." Now you may hear this and assume that there's no real mystery to LeFevre's death and that it was a simple mugging. But let's not forget, Dennis is a crackhead. He became addicted to crack all the way back in the season two episode, Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare, and he's had multiple relapses in Frank's Pretty Woman and Frank Falls Out the Window. While I don't necessarily think that Charlie knows or suspects that Dennis killed LeFevre, I do believe that the show is dropping a hint that points in Dennis's direction.

Dennis's Psychotic Break:

Usually when a serial killer first begins killing, or resumes killing after a period of inactivity, something happens that sets them off; a death in the family, getting fired, getting divorced, something of that nature. In this situation, the event that sets Dennis off is as traumatizing as any of those.

In the episode Charlie's Mom Has Cancer, which takes place immediately before the one with LeFevre's demise, Dennis is stuck in a sort of melancholy slump. He admits to Mac that he's distressed over his inability to "feel things" emotionally. Over the course of the episode he tries a number of remedies, including attending Mac's church and seeing a holistic healer named Doctor Jynx. Unfortunately none of this works, and Dennis resigns himself to feeling nothing, admitting that the church is running a scam and that Doctor Jynx is a "sorcerer" with the name of a monkey. At the end of the episode, however, in what can only be described as a horrific twist of irony, Dennis does manage to unearth his feelings. This happens when Frank tricks him into digging up his dead mother as a means of getting revenge against Dee for insulting him and stealing his money.

When the casket lid opens and Barbara's corpse is revealed, Dennis bursts into tears and starts hysterically sobbing, clutching Dee and screaming "I feel too much!" and "my mommy's a skeleton!"

This would explain Dennis's desire to slip into someone else's skin, as the flood of negative emotions that overwhelmed him upon seeing his mother's dead body made it too painful to be "Dennis Reynolds." The sight of Barbara's body without skin probably also triggered his obsession with human flesh, which ties into his psychotic impulses. This likely brought on some self-loathing, given that his mother is one of the few people that Dennis could be said to love, further contributing to his urge to become someone else. So when he saw LeFevre stumbling around behind Paddy's looking for his wallet, it was too great an opportunity to miss.


In the episode immediately after the one featuring Brian LeFevre, Charlie Rules the World, we see some interesting behavior from Dennis. Throughout the episode he expresses frustrations with the Gang's lack of drive to go out and "live life." He wants to experience things on a more visceral level while the others are burying themselves in social media and online video games. He comes off as manic and overly cheerful, in a somewhat aggressive way. He wants to go out dancing, as if celebrating something, and winds up doing shots until he projectile vomits at the table. Later in the episode he spends some time alone in an isolation tank and comes to the conclusion that he's a god, and the episode ends with him deleting everyone else's game characters because they "irritated him."

Though not entirely new behavior on Dennis's part, he does seem to take his divinity to a more literal level in this episode, whereas in the past he referred to himself as a "golden god" in more of a metaphorical sense. When viewed in the context of our present theory, that he in fact committed his first murder in the previous episode, Dennis's progressing god complex can be viewed as more than simple narcissism, but as the self-aggrandizing mentality of a budding serial killer. 

Conclusions and Summation of Evidence:

For those without the time to waste reading this whole article, I'll sum things up here. Consider this the TLDR section.
  1. Dennis is a diagnosed sociopath that harbors an unhealthy infatuation with human skin.
  2. Dennis is addicted to Crack Cocaine.
  3. Brian LeFevre is killed by "a crackhead" behind Paddy's Pub.
  4. Dennis becomes sexually aroused by impersonating LeFevre, and describes the experience as "climbing into another person's skin."
  5. In the episode directly before the one with LeFevre, Dennis is desperate to feel some sort of emotion, and has a psychotic break at the end when he sees his mother's skeleton.
  6. In the episode directly after the one with LeFevre, Dennis wants to celebrate and go out dancing and in the end has a revelation that he's a god.
  7. Dennis has, in the past, engaged in murder fantasies similar to the way he acted with Dee while impersonating LeFevre.