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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Blood on the Sand

Recently I was able to review Blood on the Sand, the first book of Mikhail Lerma's Z Plan series of militarized post-apocalyptic zombie novels.

Even before they became popular culture's go-to creature, zombies have always had a special place in my heart. More than the shambling cannibals that we've become familiar with from The Walking Dead and World War Z, zombies have always been a significant literary and cinematic device for conveying social ideas. From the racial questions brought up in White Zombie, and I Walked with a Zombie, to the Marxist anti-consumerist undertones in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the very best zombie stories have always been those which have challenged the social norms of their generation.

Blood on the Sand gives us an interesting look at military culture, patriotism, and family in 21st century America. To read my full review on The Bandwagon and to experience Mikhail's work for yourself, click here.

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

The Bandwagon Book Reviews

So recently my friend Vikki Pattis, known by some as Dracarya on certain parts of the internet, has invited me to write reviews for her blog, The Bandwagon. Vikki is a fantastic writer who does everything from short stories, to book reviews, to articles about feminism and social issues in the internet age, and I'm very pleased to be part of the new team that she's assembled to review the works of new and rising authors. To check out my reviews as well as those from the other talented contributors to The Bandwagon, click here.