Stranger Things: Like Coming Home

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Minor spoilers involving tone and some general stuff…

I saw an article the other day that referenced Stranger Things, with the question ‘Has homage become a genre of its own?’ and it made me hesitate. Then I got defensive because, as will soon become apparent, I am madly in love with this single season of Netflix original television and I don’t want it to be disparaged at all if I can help it. It’s a valid question, though and I would love to hear the opinion of someone who somehow grew up without John Carpenter, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, et al. who so clearly influenced the tone and atmosphere of this show. Would it still be as magical without the nostalgia and familiarity of that generations biggest fiction influences? If it can stand on its own, which I think it would, then it is possibly the best first season of television I’ve ever seen and without a doubt one of my favorite shows of all time.

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Am I having a side of overstatement with my hyperbole? Also possible. If someone were to draw a big dartboard that described this shows targeted demographic my dumb face would be sitting squarely in the center of the bullseye just like this. I accept that. Stranger Things is E.T. and Stand By Me and The Explorers and The Goonies all crossed with It. And if it were just those things I would probably be less infatuated with the show. Impressed with the production value, charmed by the low-fi soundtrack, and pleased with the suspense, sure. Thanks for stopping by. But what Stranger Things also has is the best, most charming group of child actors that I have seen since Freaks and Geeks. It has a frantic, heartbreaking performance from Winona Ryder. And an absolute prodigy in the form of 12 year old Millie Bobby Brown, who kills it in every single scene she is in while having next to no dialogue to work with.

In Stephen King’s On Writing he mentions that the story itself is not always as important as the storyteller. And in good writing every character thinks and behaves like they are the hero of their own plot, everyone has their own pathos and it’s this fidelity to the characters that makes that homage to 80s pop culture a good familiar. Everyone feels like real people. And even though the ‘normal looking town with a dark secret’ is a trope that has been done to death in television since the early days of the medium, it works here because the town doesn’t know there’s a secret, it hasn’t been weird forever. There isn’t a vast conspiracy (or is there) that would turn the whole thing into a cliche, no conniving Big Bad wringing their hands at the end who would have gotten away with it, and, best of all, not a totally happy ending.

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I don’t know who the hell the Duffer brothers are other than they are apparently twins and are around 34 years old but they have no right being this adept at filmmaking. Which is what it is, by the way. I know the medium is television and it’s serialized, but Stranger Things is an 8 hour film that is never boring. One of the things that makes Netflix’s other series feeling bogged down is the amount of filler content, from House of Cards to their Marvel series, that feel obligated to be around 12 or 13 episodes when they really have around 7 or 8 hours of content. And Stranger Things is exactly as long as it needs to be, no more no less. To be fair, if there is an arc that is too color by numbers to be enjoyable, it’s the older sister dating the rich kid while the sensitive loner pines away in the background but even that took an unusual turn I didn’t expect.

So if the opening and suspense is Stephen King-esque, the brothers Duffer do something unexpected and brilliant in the finale of the season. Where the horror and supernatural elements are expertly creepy and engrossing, in closing they pivot to Spielberg. I am a great admirer of King but if there is one glaring flaw in his writing it’s in his endings. Often the idea overwhelms the humanity in his characters and the suspense and his spontaneous writing method can sometimes fizzle or land with a thud, but Spielberg is a more mainstream storyteller, he has his audience in mind from start to finish. And here Stranger Things, as fantastic as it gets, reminds us that the whole ballgame is really about a mother trying to find her son, a man trying to save what he lost, and a group of friends trying to protect each other. It’s why another homage to Spielberg, Super 8, failed to be anything other than charming spectacle. For some reason JJ Abrams saw E.T. and thought the climax of the film was the spaceship flying away but it wasn’t. It was the love that had developed between two friends who couldn’t be together and the loss of that love.

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It’s the most difficult thing to write about something I really care about. On one hand I want desperately to share it with people but on the other I don’t want to ruin the joy of discovery by rambling about it for a thousand words. Suffice it to say Stranger Things made me forget some of the more cynical approaches to… no, that’s not right. It reminded me of the fort I built in the hills behind the house I grew up in and the poison oak that I kept stumbling into back when it was still okay to tell kids ‘be home before dark’. It made me think about the time my uncle told the worst ghost story of all time while sitting around a campfire that I knew was completely nonsense and I believed every word of it. It made me remember what it was like to sit curled up in a closet with a flashlight and a dog-eared library book. And a show that brings all that back and reminded a bitter old man like me what it was like to be kid again is more than just homage. It’s inspired storytelling.

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The Excoriation/Redemption Of Star Trek Beyond

The Excoriation/Redemption Of Star Trek Beyond

This will be written in two parts, the first half before seeing the film and the second after. I’m hoping that this will allow for some reconciliation between my lowered expectations and severe prejudice towards the movie and the high critical praise that it is receiving among film critics. Hopefully, this will pinpoint the exact cognitive dissonance that allows me to enjoy the rebooted film series as a casual movie goer while at the same time viciously hating everyone who is involved (cast excluded) for warping and destroying anything that was unique or original about the canon and its Universe. Or go mad trying. 

Before viewing….

I want to like Justin Lin. I really do. One of his first films, Better Luck Tomorrow, was a weird, intense little independent drama that showed a ton of promise and a talent for character pieces. But Lin followed up that Indie success with Annapolis, a generic studio manufactured pile of dreck before finding success helming the Fast and The Furious franchise, a series of films that had me finally accept the fact that no matter how much I try to be objective and look at the world through other perspectives, there is a massive population of film fans that I will never fully understand. But it’s hard to gauge a directors capabilities when they are locked into a popular tent-pole franchise. For instance, who knew Keegan Michael-Key was a brilliant comedian when he was hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos? With that show’s penchant for wretched puns and family friendly schlock, I sure didn’t. So if presented with more mature subject matter would Lin rise to the occasion? If the examples are the first two episodes of season 2 of True Detective, the answer is a resounding ‘nope’. Although visually pleasing and desperate to crib the atmosphere and artistry of Cary Fukunaga’s first season brilliance, the heavy handedness and overwrought acting immediately turned me off to the whole thing and it was months before I picked up the show again. And once I did I realized that, for all the hate that it received, season 2 is not nearly as bad as critics made it out to be. With the unfortunate exception of Lin’s episodes.

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So when he was selected to take over directing of the next installation of Star Trek I did not do a happy dance. And when the first Beastie Boy’s riddled trailer dropped, advertising him as the director of the Fast and the Furious movies, the part of me that still held out some hope for the series returning to its roots died a painful, lonely death. I was not alone in this, however. The internet threw a collective shit-fit in the direction of Paramount Studios who immediately course corrected in the second trailer with a more sober, grounded tone, mostly free of dirt-bikes. So I was totally back on board, hope renewed. Everything was sunshine and rainbows. Well, not so much.

For some reason it’s become acceptable to shrug off the complaints of the fans of the original shows and films, as if we’re all overreacting, silly nerds drunk on nostalgia, furious over a fun adaptation of a show that wasn’t that exciting to begin with. To which I reply, fuck you. I know divisiveness is a sensitive topic these days but there used to be a balance to things. Star Wars was about the spectacle, Trek had the ideas. And this separation was good, the rivalry spirited but harmless. But like another classic of cinema days gone past, Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation, the nerds grew up and became the cool kids, the spectacle and funny one-liners replaced the conversations about philosophy and political allegory. And everyone is happy because they don’t need to know the canon to enjoy these big dumb movies. Because that’s what they are. Big and dumb. But what made Star Trek special is missing from that spectacle and I refuse to let that go. The world is having a hard time admitting it lately but it needs nerds, it needs philosophical conversations and political allegory more than ever. And what’s sad is that it doesn’t have to be missing, it is possible to make an intelligent film that appeals to a wider audience, if only the owners of this franchise would bother to try.

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After the film…

I am absolutely sick of tent-pole franchises. I am exhausted of big budget CGI clusterfucks with no regard for physics or visual fidelity. I want to the era of meaningless clouds of nebulous undefined doomsday particulates to die a quick death, taking Shaky-Cam fight sequences into the grave with it to be buried alive in complete agony. I want every producer that subscribes to this dogmatic screenplay axiom that requires a sanitized action beat every ten minutes in order to re-engage the mouth breathing masses who have the collective attention span of a 9 year old high on Mountain Dew and lithium to be thrown into a canyon filled with broken bottles and tetanus. I want to see a film that is made by adults with an artistic vision and a respect for what the medium can inspire in an audience.

Instead, I get Star Trek Beyond. In all honesty, Justin Lin does a fine job with the characters and the overall tone. In fact, the beginning and the end were my favorite parts, these are well rounded dynamic personalities. I like watching them talk, I like their relationships and Lin succeeds at capturing and expanding on their arcs. So kudos, Justin. How surprised was I to walk out of the theater more disappointed with the writing than the directing. And not because it was particularly bad but because it was extraordinarily safe. For a film with the word BEYOND in the title, there is nothing in this movie that does anything that hasn’t been retread or explored in any previous iteration. Worse, the villain in this has the exact same illogical hatred of the Federation that both Benedict Cumberbatch and Eric Bana’s villains subscribed to. “Something bad but not really intentional happened to me by something loosely associated with the Federation. SO I WILL MURDER MILLIONS OF RANDOM STRANGERS.” Come, the fuck, on. Did we really need another revenge plot? I mean, is that it? Star Trek: The Motion Picture was like the visual representation of a handful of Ambien soaked in warm milk, it was so damn boring but when you find out what the primary antagonist is all about your mind is temporarily blown before you fall back asleep. And that was the first film, at least it had the courage to have some imagination, some science behind it.

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Let’s get something cleared up right fucking now. The Beastie Boys cannot exist in this Universe, it doesn’t make any sense. And not because it’s weirdly convenient that the music they listen to 300 years in the future just so happens to be contemporary to the audience watching it, but because in the song Intergalactic one of the lyrics is, “Your knees’ll start shaking and your fingers pop. Like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock.” They reference Star Trek in their music. So how the fuck can the characters in Star Trek listen to the Beastie Boys. I will accept that I am pissing in the wind when it comes to trying to turn such a huge franchise back into stuffy scientists in space who talk about stuff, I know that argument is futile. But the fact that the song Sabotage plays such an intrinsic part of the plot, it’s like I’m the only one who still gives a shit.

The really depressing thing about Star Trek Beyond is that, at times, it really does feel like Star Trek again. Like the ghost of it, anyway, the way a smell or a song will bring back a vivid memory and it finds these tender or sincere moments whenever it slows the fuck down and looks around for a second. But that doesn’t last because, oh look, a motorcycle. I might have also taken issue with how the passing of Leonard Nimoy was handled but it was done well, with dignity. In fact, they went somewhere I didn’t expect with it and I was simultaneously moved and disappointed at the same time with how it recalled the earlier days of the franchise. But it was about the boldest thing in the whole film as far as I am concerned and that’s not nothing.

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So I was really hoping to punch all my anger out and find something to enjoy about this film but something more concerning is happening; I’m having a hard time thinking of things to be mad about. And not in a good way. More because it’s not a particularly memorable movie and I don’t want to ruin what few neat moments it does have, because there are a couple. It does often charm, the cast is by far the best thing going for it and everyone seems to be swinging for the fences with what little material they have before the next big action sequence comes tumbling in like a big stupid SFX tornado. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about the tragic passing of Anton Yelchin. It’s a low and pitiful thing to say I knew someone who knew someone who knew him but I did and he was by all accounts an incredibly sweet, intelligent, and grounded human being. As for his Pavel Chekov, all I can say is that he did a very fine job. Cheers, sir.

The next film in the series has already been greenlit and that’s fine. It will be what it will be. But in closing I have to reference what felt like the final insult. The recitation of the Star Trek mission statement at the end of the movie, this time delivered by the whole crew which, by now, has nothing to do with what actually takes place in these rebooted films. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before. All right. Well, fucking prove it.

 

The Top 5 Fever Induced Theories of How Game of Thrones Will End

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The only good thing about food poisoning yourself is all the time you can spend laying in bed trying to think about anything other than the apocalyptic dehydration ravaging your digestive system. I could think of no better way to distract myself than to rewatch some earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, as I have not fully accepted the fact that it’s going to be another 10 months or more until the next. And let me tell you something, there is no worse way to spend those hours of agony than watching a show as intense and violent as Game of Thrones, it’s just a bad idea, don’t do it. Because as your mind starts to reel and waver in and out of consciousness all kinds of horrible details start to seep in and god forbid you fall asleep during a Ramsay Bolton torture session, it’s not a positive experience. But because I have judgment bad enough to food poison myself, I’ve done this, for you, and some delirious but interesting ideas occurred that I thought I’d share somewhere only a few people will judge me.

There’s no feasible way of summing up how many wild theories exist on the interwebs for how the show will end but they are many and, often, dumb and since I can’t begin to outnumber those theories I decided maybe I can out-dumb them. As someone who actually enjoyed the last two films I saw in theaters (Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence) I believe I am the man for that particular job. This will contain some spoilers for what has already transpired but nothing too in-depth and I am going to try and ground them in some semblance of logic or reference rather than wander off into obscure lore and trivia.

Or maybe I will, I haven’t eaten anything but rice and jello in three days. Enjoy!

 

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Theory #1: It’s all taking place in Bran’s MIND, man!

So there was this show in the 80s called St. Elsewhere that I don’t remember paying attention to as much as Doogie Howser, M.D. but from what I recall it was like what E.R. is today. What? That’s not relevant? It’s what Grey’s Anatomy is like today. That’s still on the air?! Whatever. It’s like *insert medical procedural* with a massive cast of actors who went on to greater success elsewhere (heh). But it was unique in its series finale for implying that the five or six years of intertwining complex characters and relationships had all actually transpired within the mind of a young autistic child staring at a snow globe. Obviously, the internet didn’t exist back then so there were no message boards or “tweeters” for people to express their half-formed inarticulate atavistic thoughts instantaneously so it’s hard to gauge how this may have affected St. Elsewhere’s audience.

However. Call it a social experiment or sociological curiosity or, perhaps what it is, pure evil, I would like to see what would happen to the pop culture consciousness if David Benioff and D.B. Weiss orchestrated an epic showdown between the forces of good and evil, between a united Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen against the Night King and when all the ash and blood settles and the kingdom is saved and bittersweet endings abound, we pull back into darkness and out of the iris of Brandon Stark. Who is laying in bed, paralyzed from his fall from a tower in Winterfell. But perfectly safe. The whole Stark family, in fact, are all accounted for like the end of The Wizard of Oz. Especially the part where everything is in black and white because have you seen Winterfell? I have a feeling that social media would shake itself down to its apoplectic foundations and, even as a fan of the show myself, it would be worth it. Plus it would be another reason to hate Bran.

Plausibility Scale:

1.5 out of 10, some things should remain in the mind of an addled sleep-deprived maniac. Not to mention this ending would imply that Bran has one sick fucking imagination for an eight year old.

 

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Theory #2: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen will fall in LOOOOOVE!

So this might not seem so bad for anyone who doesn’t read a box score. In fact, if you’re a super casual fan this might even seem like an ideal situation, the stuff of fairy tale. Well. Kind of. But more like the old school, un-edited by Disney fairy tales that are as creepy and horrifying as most mainstream horror these days. As confirmed by the finale of season six, Jon is actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Rheagar Targaryen, who was by all accounts a good guy, as well as the big brother of Daenerys, which makes her Jon’s aunt. Which presents a quandary. I’ve lived all over the place and even in the most podunk places first cousins are generally considered to be a bridge too far. Aunt and nephew, well, that’s just weird. The bigger problem is, how would they even know?

Granted, this is still just a theory, but I have no doubt in my mind that Jon and Dany are going to cross paths in one way or another, on this I’d bet real money. So unless one or the other encounters someone half as awesome as they are on the way to that fateful meeting, it only seems natural that they are going to be the literal song of Ice and Fire that George was writing about. Unfortunately, the only living soul that apparently knows his actual parentage is a paralyzed Bran who is still north of the Wall. Who I don’t believe is coming back over it, by the way. I think he’s going to set up camp and become the new tree mystic, with Meera to keep him company. So how is this fact going to be relevant to the rest of the story? If Jon and Dany do hook up are we just supposed to clap and look the other way awkwardly? Or am I wrong and Bran will show up at the last minute and ruin their aesthetically pleasing but gross love affair with the awful news? My money is on the latter because that’s just what Bran is all about.

Plausibility Scale:

5.0 out of 10, I think this might actually have legs, assuming one of the two (and I think we all know who it would be) doesn’t sacrifice himself in some epic fashion for the other. Stop trying to outdo JC, Jon Snow. Ya heathen!

 

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Theory #3: The forces of good prevail with the help of The Lord of Light who turns out to be the goddamn devil incarnate

There are clearly two very different supernatural forces vying for control of Westeros, excluding the Seven who do not appear to have any influence or grant people special powers outside of the ability to act like complete fundamentalist assholes. The Wights, the White Walkers, and the zombies from the north appear to be remnants of the Children’s magic but where does that magic come from? Maybe it’s the Old Gods who haven’t been introduced or elaborated on and they don’t seem to have an agenda that is shared with anything that has a pulse or a narrative. On the other hand The Lord of Light is basically the Chatty Cathy of higher powers, resurrecting people and deploying shadow demons like it’s going out of style. He’s reliable and as accessible as hell which should be deeply troubling to anyone who has experienced his particular brand of magic. You know what else is so reliable and accessible? Wal-Mart. Pay day cash advance loans. Apple products. All certifiably evil.

It’s hard to believe anyone who subscribes to the Lord of Light isn’t a little bit taken aback by the actual methods employed to accomplish his miracles. No one has sat down and thought, “Well, clearly the magic works but…burning people alive to do it? I’m not sure the ends justify the means, or if that idiom has even been invented yet.” Everything about this god seems to scream evil. And I think Melisandre, as vile as she had been up until recently, is the only character with a real sense of what happens when you follow this thing all the way down the rabbit hole. Her and Stannis, of course. So if the good guys win only to turn around and find themselves taking victory laps in Hell, my hair isn’t exactly going to be blown back. I don’t actually think this would be that horrible of an ending to the series, if it turns out that the whole thing was a big chess game between two superpowered beings, neither benevolent. Depressing. But epic as shit.

Plausibility Scale:

3.5 out of 10, this isn’t going to happen in the series, it’s just way too high level for a television audience. And that’s not a slight on GoT’s audience, it’s just not what anyone is looking for and Benioff and Weiss make a concerted effort to downplay a lot of the more fantasty elements of the novels. The books, however, I don’t know, I would not put it past GRRM to try and add something grander to distinguish himself from the show.

Fuck Bran.

 

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Theory #4: Everybody Dies

Did anyone ever see that movie The Alamo? It’s not good. Great production value and some neat moments but not good. The idea is romantic and inspiring and at least they knew to end the film appropriately, unlike certain dumbbells who missed the point so severely they thought it would be a good idea to give a film called Pearl Harbor a happy fucking ending. I’m starting to think that Game of Thrones has slowly but surely been turning me to the Dark Side because as the seasons wear on I find myself longing for this damn Winter to finally show up. I want to see the Wall come down and the awful, amoral, backward primitives scattered from coastline to coastline by the zombie hordes. Now, I’m not saying I want our reluctant or fearless heroes to die, I love Arya and Pod and a few others but while the show and the books have done an incredible job making me understand and sympathize with these brilliantly written characters, I don’t much care for the common folk. They are easily frightened, easily swayed, and too often rape-y. I know this is accurate for a story set in basically the Dark Ages but I dunno, *shrug*, fuck ’em. Maybe they do need to get chased around Westeros by a bunch of zambies for a little while so that they can take stock of their lives, maybe set up a parliamentary system and you know, rape less.

But what if it’s all too late to save the day and the stories we’re following in Game of Thrones are the names of heroes and villains that are all going to die and pass into legend, like some Westerosi Old Testament. And Sam is the scribe that will record all of it and leave a record that turns into a myth no one believes anymore. From what I’ve read the final two seasons are going to be shortened. Season seven is going to be seven episodes and season eight is looking like it will be six episodes long. Why? I think it’s because there are going to be fewer and fewer characters to follow. Less story to tell. And when everyone has been wiped out and no one is left, one man will finally appear out of the mist

Plausibility Scale: 6.5 out of 10, unfortunately, this is this looking like the most plausible of them all. And again, even if the show doesn’t go there, I’d bet reasonable money GRRM will if he ever finishes the books.

 

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Theory #5: Cersei Wins

One thing I have noticed on my delirious, fevered rewatch of Game of Thrones is that Cersei Lannister is, without a doubt, the biggest asshole in the entire canon. Granted, Ramsay is a cruel sadist and Joffrey was a spoiled monster, but Cersei is something else entirely. I realized around the fifth season or so, when she resurrects the Faith Militant, that she doesn’t have a sympathetic bone in her body. That she has never at any point been remotely kind or considerate to anyone at any point in the story, ever, and goes out of her way only when the opportunity to cut someone down or make them feel small presents itself. I might have felt a thin semblance of pity for her when Tommen did what he did at the end of season six but in retrospect, as Olenna pointed out, it’s all her fault. Tommen was a sweet kid and an ineffective but good-natured king. And he was happy with Margaery, who was happy right back and everything was fine. What was the worst that could have happened to Cersei as long has her kid was happy? That she would become irrelevant or lose influence over him? So she blows the whole thing up (figuratively, first) and has the Tyrell’s arrested for obscenity and smirks arrogantly at her son’s indignation. And thankfully karma catches up to her for this but if there was a lesson to be learned from the experience, Cersei didn’t catch it. Because she is a narcissist, pure and simple, soup to nuts. There is no self-reflection, or ‘how did I get myself into this’, only ‘I’m going to get what I want no matter what’.

That kind of selfishness is what wins more often than not. It’s why you don’t see the guy in the brand new Lexus politely letting people merge, instead he’s driving like the only person who has a purpose in life. How will she do it? I have no fucking clue. How has she survived this long without a servant bashing her upside the head out of principle, because, really, who would object? I have a feeling that this ending, with her miraculously retaining rule to the end, would be too infuriating for everyone involved, and now that Ramsay Bolton is nothing but a human Beggin’ Strip (it’s BACON!), Cersei is not only the Queen of King’s Landing and the Seven Kingdoms, she’s the Last Asshole Standing and about to be the bacon in a Jon and Dany BLT.

Plausibility Scale: 6.0 out of 10, Cersei is going to be around until the end, I think. There aren’t any other worthy antagonists left and they are going to need someone to balance things out since all the good guys won this season and the White Walkers are about as verbose as a dead Hodor after he dies protecting th- DAMN YOU, BRAN.

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Conclusion: I ended up taking this a little more seriously than I intended but it is what it is. I did also have a theory that Bran and the Three Eyed Raven played by Max Von Sydow are the same person, just at different ages and I stand by that because they look just like each other. But I also theorized that he wasn’t really there in the first place and that Bran was having a Tyler Durden moment talking to tree for however many days. But on my rewatch I noticed that Meera does, in fact, look right at Captain Tree-Pants and talk to him when they first arrive, so this has somewhat lessened my conspiratorial hoodoo. But I still think it’s true.

Ultimately, I find it wearying when George describes the ending of his epic series as ‘bittersweet’. My guard goes up. I get cagey. Personally, and I mean this with all the love I have for Tyrion, Davos, Missandei, and Jon Snow, I don’t care if the whole places burns to the ground or is converted into a ice zombie slave colony, just give me this one thing, Dave and D.B., just this one thing.