Review: A Dream of Spring

dream of springWhen I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book would be released this summer, I called bullshit like everyone else. In hindsight, I suppose skipping over The Winds of Winter was Martin’s best move. The sixth season of the TV series did more than steal his thunder; it underscored how badly he had fallen as a writer. Like the early novels it moved mountains of plotting, and some critics are calling it the best season yet. If Martin ever does bother finishing The Winds of Winter he should simply adapt the TV-script with minimal modifications. Weiss and Benioff showed him up big time this year, and the message was loud and clear: Remember who your readers are, George — what they signed on for, and what you used to be capable of.

Martin was evidently worried this might happen, because for the past year he’s been rushing to crank out book seven. Yes it’s really here, and it’s pretty damn good, certainly the best entry since A Storm of Swords, though it shows signs of haste. At 574 pages it’s the shortest volume (even Feast for Crows topped 600), and overloaded with shocks, deaths, and surprises that come flying out-of-nowhere and sometimes feel forced. Above all it betrays an author who is pissed at how superior his story has become in the hands of TV adapters. A Dream of Spring is Martin’s desperate appeal that he can still write a good story, and his blatant attempt to go out with a bang before the show writers can. He’s largely successful in this regard. He was too under the gun to craft anything close to a masterpiece; but where he does score, the payoffs are grand.

Huge spoilers follow, so stop now if you don’t want to hear them. Bran is the character who demands the most attention, but before his memorable lead in the first chapter comes a six-section prologue which in some ways — and I hope I’m not damning the book on whole by saying this — is the most suspenseful part. Martin’s novels have always relied on prologues to set the stage, but they’re usually brief and seen through the lens of trivial characters. In A Dream of Spring he serves up what is virtually a short story about the Citadel conspiracy in Oldtown: six chapter equivalents from Samwell’s point of view. (I’m sure most of these were originally intended as Samwell chapters for The Winds of Winter.) Sam has basically traded warfare at the Wall for an intellectual battle at the Citadel, in which sorcery clashes with science and leaves no easy place for his allegiance. It doesn’t hurt that the “antiquated” school has colorful conspirators carrying the flag, nor does it help that “progressive” maesters do little more than sit around and pass gas; Sam is torn both ways, starting as a key player for a Targaryen comeback until shafted by Sand Snake Sarella — a shocking twist that pays dividends as he ultimately throws in his lot with the dominant faction.

In some ways the Citadel conspiracy is my favorite part of A Dream of Spring. It has the tight focus we haven’t seen since the early novels, before Martin spread his story over too many minor characters. And the drama is tense as hell. I was sweating trying to figure out who was doing what to whom. Truths are revealed as half-truths and lies, allies more lethal than enemies, the kind of intrigue we saw in book 1 as Ned was trying to figure out who killed Jon Arryn, and in book 2 when Tyrion was playing all sides against the middle. The transition to Bran was almost a come down after this cracking intro; Martin should consider writing mystery thrillers. This is all to say that the rise and fall of the Citadel conspiracy is deftly executed, brilliantly complex, and proof positive that Martin hasn’t lost his touch. He still has the mojo when he applies himself. He perhaps over-applies himself, however, with Bran.

Bran’s homoerotic passion for a Forest Child will be extremely controversial, not least because of his age. In the TV series Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a strapping youth of 17, but in the books Bran is still only 10. (Four years have passed since the first chapter of book 1.) It is implied that Bran’s greenseer powers have accelerated certain aspects of his biology, but this is still disturbing territory, and there are heavy shades of Ishmael, the androgynous figure from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In that film Ishmael physically caresses the prepubescent Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Pollen caresses Bran and empowers him in a similar way to murder someone leagues away, but the carnality is much more overt; Pollen is blatantly sexually assaulting him until Bran’s rage turns to passion. It’s an extremely well-written scene, and I’ve said in previous reviews that Martin’s best writing comes in the Bran chapters. But it’s a scene you will feel ashamed of reading.

Bran’s chapters will be controversial in other ways. He’s the most important character (he gets 14 chapters out of 62, almost a quarter of the novel), but his seminal moments depend on changing the past in ways that don’t really change it at all. That worked brilliantly in the TV series in paying off the character of Hodor, but at this stage the results are too predictable: It is Bran Stark who raises the Wall 8000 years ago, unleashing an explosive force of weir-magic through his ancestor Bran the Builder. It is likewise Bran Stark responsible for the mysterious vanishing of the Others in that same year, as he summons them forward in time to the point of four years ago, in order to precipitate the events which will lead to Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings. And he is also Bran the Breaker, who in a fit of epileptic fury defeats the Night’s King and solves the riddle of Joramun’s Horn. Time travel is always risky business, and for the most part Martin handles it well, but again, the events are rather banal once they are telegraphed; we’ve seen this kind of thing done before in fantasy and sci-fic. On the other hand, it’s a solid payoff to Bran’s warging abilities combined with his weir-magic that gives him a near godlike omniscience and omnipresence across time.

The lady Starks get good chapters and surpass themselves. It’s impossible to not feel elated for Sansa as after so much torment in the previous books she assumes control of both Winterfell and the Eyrie, and shafts Littlefinger by consigning him to the Wall. Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys and Lannisters before being snared and gang-raped by hundreds more. Her prolonged torture and death is inflammatory by even Martin’s standards, and while this isn’t exactly a complaint on my part, there does seem to be a “My dick is bigger than yours” thing going on between the novels and TV series, as if Martin and Weiss/Benioff are competing to outshine each other with shock value. I wonder how Martin’s spouse-equivalent has reacted to this. Arya is her favorite character and was originally slated to die in book 2; it’s well known among fans that she forbade Martin to kill her off. Arya is my favorite character too, and while I don’t object to her dying unjustly, I’ll certainly say she deserved to go out better than this.

There are shocks around every corner, and by far the most gratifying one is the Iron Throne’s literal rejection of Cersei Lannister. While there have been hints that the Throne is sentient (“Some days you can feel it eating into you,” said King Robert in book 1), the reawakening and arrival of dragons in Westeros seem to have triggered a full-blown animation. The First of Her Name pronounces war on Dorne and the Reach, speaking her awful judgment from the throne only to be gruesomely impaled by its blades. It’s a bit cartoonish but I was cheering; Jaime is another matter. His murder at the hands of Ser Enchanted-Gregor is anything but cartoonish and rather upsetting. We’ve come a long way with Jaime since he threw Bran off the tower, and it’s safe to say he will go down a big favorite of many fans. He finally opposes his wretched sister, and makes a sacrifice for Sansa so sublime that brings perfect closure to the arc with Brienne. All of Martin’s characters are believable, but none more so than Jaime. He has been Martin’s most authentic character by far.

As for the showdown between the Hound (villain turned hero) and Lady Stoneheart (hero turned villain), it’s entertaining but the tone is all wrong, like something out of a B-grade horror film. In chapters like these Martin was clearly taking the piss in his hurry to finish the book. Euron is another case in point. The Greyjoy thread was my favorite part of A Feast for Crows; it was loaded with potential. But Euron’s story devolves into a caricature of sadistic kinslaying — brandishing Theon’s head in public while dressing up in his niece’s skins to terrorize his fellow man. On the other hand, Aeron Damphair gets a standout chapter. His toxic prayers against Euron backfire (literally: he’s killed by a sea-storm so wild it may as well be the Drowned God incarnate), but his righteous tirades are the most entertaining I’ve read in a work of fiction.

The battle between the dragons and the Others is what we’ve long waited for, and it’s good if somewhat by the numbers. On TV next year it’s sure to be mind-blowing. The identity of the dragon with three heads is as I predicted — Dany on Drogon, Aegon on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until Tyrion dies (more on that in a moment) and Jon supplants him. It’s surprising that so many readers dismissed Aegon as a phony pretender. If that were true, Dany’s revelation in the House of the Undying would make no sense. Besides, there is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) “sharing” a dragon, and the way Viserion’s reins are handed off to Jon is extremely well played. At the Wall, Littlefinger makes the most treacherous move in the series — even I was appalled — and Tyrion dies saving Jon, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall on a whim. As for the character of Aegon, he’s somewhat a mixed bag. He began as a cipher in Dance with Dragons (I’m not surprised the show writers dumped him, at least so far), but he’s more interesting now; the problem is that he doesn’t get enough chapters warranted by his role as “the song of ice and fire”. On top of that, much of his story would have been fleshed out in the unfinished Winds of Winter, and so we’re left to fill in the blanks without assistance from the TV series.

Fans have expected Jon and Dany to fulfill the ice and fire prophecy — Jon being the ice and Dany the fire. In fact, it is Sansa who is the ice (she being a complete Stark, unlike Jon), and Aegon the Targaryen fire as promised. I didn’t see it coming with Sansa, even though a fringe group of fans have been predicting a Jon-Sansa pairing. I rejected that theory and am now eating crow. Their passion for each other is intense, though somewhat cheap; I didn’t care for the way Sansa’s red hair evoked memories of Ygritte every time she and Jon were in the sack, nor for their cheesy promises to each other. The Iron Throne does seem to be where Jon is headed until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to Aegon and a heartbroken Sansa who reluctantly then resolutely steps up as queen. Jon and Dany practically fade to black, saviors of Westeros whose cousin and nephew will wear the crowns. That is Martin’s song: the marriage of House Stark and Targaryen’s most capable members.

Many will object to Dany’s ending, but I honestly never thought she would rule Westeros. Her departure for Mereen may seem anti-climactic, but for me it works, especially considering the unfinished business there on top of Daario Naharis’ assassination. In the end she is truly concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed (unlike Sansa who is naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand); Jon sees that he’s idealistically naive (unlike Aegon whose integrity is balanced by political realism). I love their farewell at the Wall, and no they don’t get married. In the epilogue Jon is ruling Winterfell without a queen, by all indications as celibate as when he wore the black. And as grim: the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. He reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany in Slaver’s Bay. Which is all fine and well. A Song of Ice and Fire was never slated for the most happy ending, and it deserves to live up to its grim reputation. The closing chapters do that, leaving us with only a dim hope, or dream, for a better Westeros.

I doubt that Martin will ever bother finishing The Winds of Winter, and at this point that’s probably just as well. The TV series told that part of the story better than he could ever hope to. I’m just glad he was able to pull his shit together for A Dream of Spring and produce a satisfying conclusion. Even without a leg A Song of Ice and Fire now stands as one of the best epic fantasies of all time.


A Game of Thrones — 5
A Clash of Kings — 5
A Storm of Swords — 5+
A Feast for Crows — 3
A Dance with Dragons — 4
The Winds of Winter — ?
A Dream of Spring — 4 ½

(Previous volumes reviewed here.)

The Best Game of Thrones Episodes

Six seasons. 60 episodes. Here are the 30 best, ranked in descending order. Eight of them are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, three from season 5, and six from season 6.

As far as ranking the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 6 > 3 & 4 > 5 > 2. I can’t choose between 3 and 4, which are really two halves of an extended season representing the third monster novel A Storm of Swords. That’s the best book of the novels. In the TV series, however, season 1 remains the strongest, and season 6, which overtook the books, a close second.

Season 5 is the inverse to seasons 3 and 4. It condenses two novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, both of which needed serious editing, with rather good results. I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes (especially Sansa’s) were for the better.

Season 2 is the only one I would call less than excellent. It was still very good, but something about it lacked impact, and it also involved the worst adaptation from the novels. The kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot.
1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. (5+ stars) The series’ most unforgettable chapter, and the rare episode that acquires instant legendary status — like Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and The Sopranos’ College. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem almost banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes truly innocent victims like Robb’s pregnant wife, and the backstabbing comes from even allies as the Boltons turn on their liege lord. The episode also has the best Bran scene before season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the Wildling attack; great wolf action from both Ghost and Summer. The Red Wedding is the reason Benioff and Weiss wanted to make the TV series, and they surpassed even the nihilism of the book.

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2. Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. (5+ stars) It’s no exaggeration to say that the battle for Winterfell is one of the most incredibly choreographed battles ever done, and certainly the most impressive done for a TV series. It was only strengthened by the need to go off-script and cheat due to budget and time constraints; for example, the claustrophobic terror of Jon being trampled ended up being one of the most effective scenes. Even more than the Pelennor Fields in Jackson’s Return of the King, it immerses the viewer in the chaos and random carnage as seen from the ground. If the Red Wedding is quintessential Game of Thrones, the Bastard Battle is the rare payback for characters we love, though at hideous cost (Rickon, Wun-Wun). And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet, and then later Dany finds common cause with Yara Greyjoy.
3. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. (5+ stars) I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, we get stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya Needle. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s major wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s poor wolf ends up paying the price for it. In Lord of the Rings, the breaking of the fellowship comes long after the hobbits leave the Shire. In Game of Thrones, the breaking of the Stark family is the initial departure from home, and many of these terrific characters will die and never see each other again. It’s a precious episode that gets better each year, and I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.
4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. (5+ stars) This is the episode Game of Thrones has been building to from the first frame. You could make a case for Hardhome, but that was a contest of muscle. As important as Jon is, I’ve always viewed Bran as the most critical character, and here he emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time. He wargs into Hodor to escape the white walkers, but he does so while he’s observing Winterfell in the past, which creates a psychic link between the two Hodors: past-Hodor becomes warged too and hears Meera yelling “hold the door” from the future, which he starts repeating until his mind snaps. So Bran is responsible for creating Hodor’s mentally challenged state, which leaves open all sorts of possibilities (will Bran “become” his ancestor Bran the Builder and raise the Wall himself 8000 years ago?). In any case, the white walker assault on the Weir Tree is mind-blowing. This episode also has the best Ironborn scene, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.
5. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. (5+ stars) The most drastic departure from the novels results in one of the best episodes, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long. The undead threat beyond the Wall is what Game of Thrones is about. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the real threat. That the walkers have made few appearances has been a strength, to be sure; this is a patient series not given to cheap thrills. But by the fifth book, a dramatic outing was overdue, and the show writers rectified this deficiency. The battle is incredible enough as it is, but when the Night King at the end slowly raises his arms, and every fallen member of both sides of the battle rises as a wight, the look on Jon’s face as the screen fades to black is one of the most powerful in the series. Also overdue was the hookup of Tyrion and Dany, and their disputing where and how Dany should rule; it’s a great interaction.

6. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. (5+ stars) If Hardhome is the ice we’d been waiting for by season five, this episode is the fire. Drogon’s dance in Daznak’s Pit is everything I hoped for and more, but before that comes another and more outrageous fire, and possibly the most upsetting scene of the series: Stannis sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. Back to back we witness the burning-at-the-stake of a completely innocent child, and then the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny, as her untamed baby, now of monstrous size, roasts her attackers in the arena. I’m hard pressed to say which scene is more powerful, and I love how the “Dance of Dragons” theme weaves through both; Stannis and Shireen’s discussion of the ancient dragons is so tenderly played, and a heartbreaking prelude to a father’s despicable decision.
7. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. (5 stars) A visual masterpiece, which for whatever reason isn’t a big favorite among fans. Ramsay’s prolonged torture of Theon is too much for some people, but that doesn’t subtract from The Climb being one of the best directed episodes of the series. I was sweating when the Wall defended itself and sent the wildlings falling to their screaming demise. Jon and Ygritte’s precious moment at the top is well earned. Tyrion and Cersei have their best moment (finding common cause in grief over the marriages they’ve been shafted with), as do Tywin and Olenna (who sling mud at each other over the homosexual/incestuous inclinations of the other’s children). The best part, however, is Littlefinger’s monologue about his own “climb” of the ladder of life. He glorifies the ruthless who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, which plays over the ugly death of Ros. It’s the coldest speech of the series and steals the show.
8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. (5 stars) A densely packed episode with nail-biting drama. War is foreshadowed when Robert (after punching Cersei in the face) refuses to allow Ned to step down as the Hand. He gets more than he bargained for when Ned sits the Iron Throne and summons Tywin Lannister to court on pain of treason, precipitating awful events. Meanwhile, over in the Vale, Tyrion is championed by Bronn, and the duel is a ripper. Still further east, Dany gets carnivorous with the horse heart — without question the best cross-cultural scene of the series — and Viserys is “rewarded” by Drogo with a molten gold crown. His death is so disturbing that it almost plays like fantasy snuff. The Kingsroad will always be my favorite of season 1, but this one is a close second.

9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. (5 stars) The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is the best one-on-one fight sequence to date. It’s so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite his relatively small size (compared to the Mountain), he looks entirely believable as the most lethal warrior of Dorne; his acrobatics with the spear are hypnotic. This episode also features a stellar performance from Sansa, as she tearfully recounts Lysa’s “suicide” to the nobles of the Vale — both exposing and concealing Petyr’s deceptions, and finally taking control of her miserable life. Here she shows the potential for becoming dangerous like Petyr and shrewd like her mother.

10. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. (5 stars) By far the nastiest episode to date and an underrated gem. Joffrey has Sansa beaten in front of spectators in the throne room. Joffrey forces Ros to beat another whore bloody. The Mountain and his men torture young prisoners at Harrenhal. Most spectacularly, after Stannis and Renly trade public insults, Melisandre gives hideous birth to a shadow creature. It’s one demented act after another, and was scripted by Vanessa Taylor, whose other season-2 episode places on this list (The Old Gods and the New). She should be writing a lot more for the series. If not for her, I wonder if anything from season 2 other than Blackwater would appear on my list. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments.

11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. (5 stars) The first 20 minutes are a crowning directorial achievement, ending in the mass murder of just about everyone at King’s Landing — the High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Lancel, Mace Tyrell, Kevan Lannister included. In terms of sheer numbers, Cersie’s terrorist bomb kills more people than the Freys did at the Red Wedding. Whether or not that makes the entire episode worthy of the #1 slot (as many fans believe) is another matter. Winds of Winter is a set-up episode above all, moving all pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Mad Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King, as we know, waits for them all. We get the supreme bonus of Faceless Arya assassinating the Freys, and finally get to see Oldtown which is incredibly gorgeous. It’s a fantastic episode and the best season finale of the series, but I don’t think it merits the #1 slot.

12. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. (5 stars) The title heralds the death of Lord Mormont, killed by his own men at Craster’s Keep. That’s explosive enough. But the real explosion comes overseas in Slaver’s Bay, where Dany comes into her own and roasts the city of Astapor. The “dracarys” moment is almost as powerful as in the book — I say almost because of the liberties taken back in the House of the Undying, where the dragons made their first “dracarys” kill with Pyat Pree. (The Qarth thread of season 2 has been the weakest adaptation to date.) But it doesn’t end up mattering much: this is a truly glorious episode.
13. Baelor. Season 1, Episode 9. (5 stars) The death of Ned Stark showed that no one is safe in Westeros, that the more you grow attached to Martin’s characters, the more likely they will be unexpectedly and unfairly slain. It’s an instant classic for good reason, though a bit overrated by those who rank it up with The Rains of Castamere. The episode on whole isn’t that strong, though certainly excellent, for in the east Dany faces the impending deaths of Drogo and Rhaego: the horse ritual that kills her husband and baby is hideous. Walder Frey makes an appropriate first appearance, negotiating with Catelyn for terms that Robb will fail to keep, precipitating his own treacherous downfall.

14. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. (5 stars) A pure bad-ass episode. Drogo is challenged by one of his men when Dany refuses to allow war captives to be raped, and Drogo rewards him by ripping his tongue out of his throat. At Kings’ Landing, Arya kills a stable boy in the chaos following Ned’s imprisonment — and after watching Syrio Forell clobber the shit out of four Lannister knights with a wooden training sword before dying under Ser Meryn’s blade. In the north, the Greatjon challenges Robb’s right to lead the clans, and Grey Wind leaps over the dinner table and bites his finger off. At the Wall, Jon kills a reanimated wight. This one gets your blood up like no other.
15. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. (5 stars) Tyrion’s mummer trial, his “confession” before the court, and demand for a trial by combat harks back to his imprisonment in the Eyrie, but this time the drama is more stirring. When even Shae testifies against him with lies, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: “I saved you all — all your worthless lives.” He confesses to the crime of simply being a dwarf, for which he’s been on trial all his bloody life. “I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. I wish I was the monster you think I am.” This pivotal scene is true to the book, and without question my favorite Tyrion scene to date.
16. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. (5 stars) Theon’s notorious capture of Winterfell. When he executes Rodrik in front of Bran, it’s a brutal hack job that takes four goddamn swings (a far cry from the single clean strokes of the Starks). In a way it’s as upsetting as Ned Stark’s beheading, because the fall of Winterfell represents the evaporation of Ned’s entire house. Things also get rough at Kings Landing, as Joffrey and his retinue are attacked by a starving mob, and Sansa nearly raped until rescued by the Hound. Meanwhile, Arya has become Tywin’s cupbearer at Harrenhal, and they have some of the best character moments in the series. Up north Ygritte makes her debut: Jon is unable to kill her, and she begins tormenting him with lewd come-ons.
17. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. (5 stars) The next two battles are slightly overrated. They are excellent but don’t belong in the top 10 where many fans place them. I will say the battle for the Wall is more impressive than Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s Two Towers. It’s faithful to the book’s imagery, some of it exactly how I imagined. There are giants, a mammoth, and exploding barrels of oil; wall-scaling; the breaching of the gate. Alliser Thorne is in fine, vulgar form; the deaths of Pyp and Grenn are moving, and of course Ygritte even more so.
18. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. (5 stars) Another bottle episode and battle epic that’s slightly overpraised. The claustrophobic focus at King’s Landing is effective. Like the characters we feel caged inside the Red Keep, with no hint as to what’s going on elsewhere, and just because they’re Lannisters doesn’t mean we don’t feel for them. Tyrion owns the spotlight, as his cunning plans to save the city explode with an emerald vengeance. The wildfire on the river is quite a spectacle, and you don’t know whether to cheer or cringe as Stannis’ men burn like auto-de-fés. Tyrion’s reward is a sliced face, and his come-late father who will take all the credit.
19. Winter is Coming. Season 1, Episode 1. (4 ½ stars) The premiere hooks you on the series whether fantasy is your thing or not. The prologue establishes the threat beyond the Wall, and the bulk of the episode showcases the Stark and Lannister characters we’ll come to love and hate. The Stark kids claiming their wolf pups is the best part. Bran climbing the tower walls and getting pushed off by Jaime is a close second, and promises that Game of Thrones won’t be generic fantasy: George Martin plays hardball.
20. Fire and Blood. Season 1, Episode 10. (4 ½ stars) The first season finale is an aftermath that sees everyone coping with Ned’s death. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father’s head displayed on the castle walls, and Ser Meryn beating her face bloody, is especially heartbreaking, and Sansa’s true gateway to a hell that will last until the end of season 5. But Dany’s side of the story upstages this as she copes with Drogo’s death, the question of her fate among the Dothraki, and finally of course, the amazing birth of her dragons. It’s by far the best season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.

21. Book of the Stranger. Season 6, Episode 4. (4 ½ stars) In a replay of Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from an inferno to stand naked before a horde of Dothraki. It doesn’t exactly feel like a repeat, because the first time was sort of a false start, taking Dany east instead of west and then to her crusade in Slaver’s Bay. Now she has the political gumption (and a much huger horde) to make her move. Her insulting speech is great: she calls the khals small men, and says she would make a better leader of the Dothraki than any of them; they laugh of course and threaten to rape her to death, and she looses the fire on them. Over in Mereen, Tyrion in tense negotiations with slavers from Astapor and serving Dany’s cause well. And a most precious reunion of Jon and Sansa at the Wall. After five seasons of hell Sansa deserves this relief, and I started tearing up when she begged Jon to forgive her for treating him so awfully when they were kids.

22. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. (4 ½ stars) Jon and Ygritte’s love-play in the cave pool is the heart of the episode, resonating with foreordained tragedy. Ygritte means it when she says she wishes they could stay there forever, though certainly not because she fears war. On an unacknowledged level, they both know their romance can’t last. Then there is the Karstark fiasco that cements Robb’s own doom. If breaking his marriage-oath to Walder Frey was the unforgivable offense, executing Karstark and alienating his men is what will make the Red Wedding possible. Last but not least is the duel between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion.
23. The Wolf and the Lion. Season 1, Episode 5. (4 ½ stars) Here we get the catalyst for the War of the Five Kings: Catelyn’s rash abduction of Tyrion. The Eyrie is spectacular, the sky cells terrifying, and young Prince Robin a piece of work. True to the book, he suckles his mother’s breast at the age of eight, and is sadistic like Joffrey. At Kings Landing there’s some intense drama: the Mountain gets thrown from his horse and chops its head off; Ned resigns as Hand when Robert condones Dany’s assassination; then he’s ambushed by Jaime, who has his men slaughtered. From here on out Westeros won’t be the same.

24. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. (4 ½ stars) Joffrey’s death is a scene you can replay over again, just like the scenes of Tyrion slapping his face in episode 2 of the first season and episode 6 of the second. Except Tyrion isn’t the offender this time, much as he will pay dearly for it. The culprit is sharp-tongued Lady Olenna, who obviously wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros, but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joffrey’s sadism. (She’s undoubtedly in league with Littlefinger, who has in hand in every nefarious plot.) I also love the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings.

25. The Children. Season 4, Episode 10. (4 ½ stars) The pivotal scene in this finale is Bran’s arrival at the weir-tree of the Three-Eyed Raven, and it’s prefaced by an undead attack sequence that sees the death of Jojen Reed and Bran warging. Then there is Dany’s dragon horror, as she finds out that Drogon roasted some poor Merenese child. Tyrion shooting his father with a crossbow is another priceless climax: Tywin is on the toilet when it happens. Shae gets her due as well. Like Tyrion, Arya sails for the east — after watching Brienne beat the Hound within an inch of his life. Not many episode-10s make this cut, but the season four finale exceeds expectations with a vengeance.
26. Second Sons. Season 3, Episode 8. (4 ½ stars) The theme of protective second sons plays everywhere. Mercenaries by that name rally to support Dany. Tyrion weds Sansa, and defends her against Joffrey’s bullying. Sam protects Ghilly, and in a major heroic moment kills a White Walker. But the best part is at Dragonstone, where Stannis (the realm’s “protector”) leeches the deaths of the “usurper” kings. It’s creepy as hell, and implies that he and Melisandre are the true assassins of Robb and Joffrey, working their regicides through supernatural forces; Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be mere proxy killers in the grander scheme of things.
27. Oathbreaker. Season 6, Episode 3. (4 stars) The episode is defined by Jon’s leaving the Night’s Watch (though of course his resurrection means that technically he did give his life to the Watch) after executing his brothers who broke their own oaths by killing him. But the best scenes are owned by Bran and Arya. Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy is a special treat: Arthur Dayne is outnumbered by Ned Stark and his men, smashes most of them to smithereens anyway, and is finally killed not by Ned (as Bran had been taught) but rather Howland Reed who stabs him from behind. Meanwhile, Arya finishes her blind training, drinks the Kool-aid, and becomes an assassin. Tommen has a particularly good scene with the High Sparrow.

28. High Sparrow. Season 5, Episode 3. (4 stars) The first seven episodes of the fifth season aren’t quite as weak as people complain about, and this one is especially good. There is Jon’s beheading of Janos Slynt, which is fantastic, but it’s really about the Stark girls and the hardest decisions they’ve yet faced. Sansa enters into a marriage pact with Ramsay Bolton, and this radical departure from the novels is an excellent move, as it promises Sansa a pro-active role in payback for the Starks. Meanwhile over in Essos, Arya is initiated into the Faceless Assassins — the first of her ongoing sessions with the waif who beats down her ass every time — and she makes the painful choice of putting her old life completely behind her. And of course the titular theme involves Cersei promoting the Faith Militant, replacing the High Septon with the High Sparrow, a decision she will most sorely regret.
29. You Win or You Die. Season 1, Episode 7. (4 stars) Two scenes sell this episode with a vengeance. The first is Drogo’s vow to avenge the assassination attempt on Danerys: “I will take my khalasar west to where the world ends, and ride wooden horses across the black salt sea as no khal has done before! I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses! I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak! I swear before the Mother of Mountains as the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness!” (Dany’s renewal of that pledge on the back of Drogon in season 6 is pretty damn good too, but it doesn’t top Drogo’s original.) The other, of course, is Littlefinger’s betrayal of Ned Stark in the throne room.

30. No One. Season 6, Episode 8. (4 stars) The major event signaled by the title is actually a let-down. I loved Arya’s scenes with the Faceless Ones throughout seasons five and six, but her final showdown with the waif is banal. It’s an otherwise strong episode and contains my favorite scene between Jaime and Brienne. Jaime at his most caring (with Brienne) and most contemptuous (with Edmure). Then there is the Hound, who kills the outlaws who massacred the pacifist community before joining Beric’s group. The Mountain meanwhile kills one of the Faith Militant — his first kill since being worked over with sorcery. And finally, Tommen outlaws trial by combat, to a horrified Cersei who feels the walls closing in.

Pastor Anderson’s war on the sodomites

Click for video

Our friend Pastor Anderson isn’t content with smashing his fist on the podium and kicking it until his toes break. Now he jumps on top of the thing and threatens to excommunicate anyone in his church who doesn’t support his all-out war on the sodomites. The sermon is a very long 1 hour and 14 minutes, so I made 5-minute clip of the jaw-dropping parts (click right image).

As usual, he’s a train wreck impossible to stop watching, and the Orlando shooting has clearly pushed him into meltdown. What’s especially dispiriting are the kids in the audience laughing fondly and enjoying his invective against the LGBT community. I can’t imagine growing up in a church like this. Anderson combines the theatrics of Saturday Night Live with the hate of fanatical fringe groups to produce something rather unique.

Rape and Gun Memes

rape shootingsI’ve seen two memes on Facebook recently that satirically “explain” the singular causes of rape and mass shootings. As much as I appreciate what these memes get at (namely: criminals should be held fully accountable for their actions), the rhetorical effect suggests that dress attire, alcohol, walking alone in high-risk areas are not aggravating factors (“causes”) of rape, which isn’t true. Likewise that unrestricted access to guns cannot be viewed as significantly enabling a killer’s success. And note the hypocrisy: liberals brandish the rape meme, conservatives the gun meme, both equally unwisely.

With regards to the rape meme: It’s irresponsible to expect rapists to behave themselves as we educate the world about rape culture. The reality is that rapists will be rapists and certain behaviors enable their success. That’s not victim-blaming; it’s common sense. The rapist should always get the full 100%-blame in a court of law, but people should also be smart enough about their own safety to apply measures of preventive maintenance as situations warrant. The same is true of any crime: If I walk alone at night in a crime-infested city area and get mugged, the mugger is fully accountable. But I was acting very stupidly.

With regards to the gun meme: It’s equally irresponsible to not regulate guns — and actually permit the sale of assault weapons — in the expectation that all citizens are decent and mentally stable. In the U.S. we’re long overdue for tighter gun control. Allow me the caveat I’ve added elsewhere: I don’t believe for a moment that better gun control will reduce the number of mass killings (full explanation here). But better gun control will at least go a long way to curtailing gun deaths resulting from domestic abuse, accidents involving children, and hard-core criminals who shouldn’t own a gun at all.

These memes do emphasize where full accountability lies, and yes, that’s important. But they are ultimately naïve.

Where are the white terrorists?

color chartTerrorists have been traditionally defined as vigilantes who use threats or violence against civilians in order to attain political, religious and/or ideological goals, by process of fear, intimidation, and/or coercion. These days you can be exempt from the label according to ethnicity, as the satirical graph on the right shows.

This wasn’t true before 9/11. Ted Kaczynski (“the Unabomber”) opposed modern technology, and mailed bombs to people between 1978 and 1995, and Timothy McVeigh was a white supremacist and New Order conspiracy theorist who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. They were called terrorists by every mainstream media outlet. Today they probably wouldn’t be.

Consider Daniel Cowart (the white supremacist who plotted to kill black school students and then President Obama in 2008), James Von Brunn (the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter in 2009), Byron Williams (the Tea Party member inspired by the propaganda of Glenn Beck, who armed himself and went “liberal-hunting” in 2010), and Jared Loughner (the conspiracy theorist believing in a governmental plot to brainwash people, who killed six people in 2011). The terrorist activities of these men speak for themselves, despite the reluctance to call them terrorists in a post-9/11 world.

We should acknowledge the reason for that reluctance. Terrorisms have different manifestations and threat levels. To lump the above men together creates the misleading impression that there is a concerted movement equivalent to the Islamic jihad. Jihad is a massive global threat first of all. In the U.S. there have been many foiled jihadist plots, and if we included those in comparing the number of Islamic terrorist attacks vs. non-Islamic, the former would dwarf the latter. And when you factor that whites comprise 77% of the U.S. population, and Muslims less than 1%, that magnifies the jihad threat exponentially.

It doesn’t take fear-mongering to recognize that Islamic terrorists are a persistently dangerous breed, but that doesn’t warrant making them the “only” terrorists. That strips the definition and fuels counter-productive political narratives. Dylann Roof is as much a terrorist as Omar Mateen.

The Motives of Walter Fritz

orgyAs everyone and their mother knew by yesterday’s end, the owner of the Jesus-Wife fragment has been unmasked by the brilliant detective work of Ariel Sabar (The Atlantic, July/August, 2016). The owner’s name is Walter Fritz, who is also more than likely the forger:

“By every indication, Fritz had the skills and knowledge to forge the Jesus’s-wife papyrus. He was the missing link between all the players in the provenance story. He’d proved adept at deciphering enigmatic Egyptian text. He had a salesman’s silver tongue, which kept Laukamp and possibly others in his thrall. Perhaps most important, he’d studied Coptic but had never been very good at it — which could explain the ‘combination of bumbling and sophistication’ that King had deemed ‘extremely unlikely’ in a forger.”

But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive?

“Money drives many forgers, and by 2010 Fritz’s assets certainly appear to have taken a beating. The owner of the papyrus agreed to loan it to Harvard for 10 years, but that’s hardly exculpatory: An Ivy League imprimatur could produce a kind of halo effect, giving a forger cover to sell other fakes with less scrutiny.

But there was another possibility. If Fritz had seen his Egyptology dreams thwarted, maybe he nursed a grudge against the elite scholars who had failed to appreciate his intellectual gifts—who had told him he was mediocre at Coptic and short on original ideas. Not a few forgers over the decades have been driven by a desire to show up the experts.” [Edit: Like Morton Smith.]

Or it could even be that Fritz and his wife had seen in The Da Vinci Code a way to sanctify their libertine sex life. They launched a porn site right after the novel was published, and enjoyed gangbangs, premised on the fantasies of husbands who were helpless against their wives’ lust for other men.

“Beginning in 2003, Fritz had launched a series of pornographic sites that showcased his wife having sex with other men — often more than one at a time. One home page billed her as ‘America’s #1 Slut Wife.’ The couple advertised the dates and locations of ‘gangbangs’ and asked interested men to e‑mail ‘Walt’ a photo and phone number, so he could clear them to attend. There was no charge, but the men had to agree to Walt’s filming.

‘I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful time during the gangbang on Friday,’ someone named Doug was quoted as saying on the fan-mail page of one of the sites. ‘Don’t get me wrong Walt you are a great guy, but your wife…Wow!!!’

All of the sites seem to have been taken down in late 2014 and early 2015. But archived pages and free images and videos were easy to find online. In an interview on a German-language Web site, Fritz’s wife, under her porn name, described herself as the daughter of a U.S. military officer who had been stationed in Berlin when she was a teenager. She and Fritz met in Florida in the 1990s, and he encouraged her to act out their shared fantasies of her having sex with other men.

Fritz appears in a few videos, but he is more often behind the camera. He included a bio on one site, under his occasional porn name, Wolf: ‘I am a 45 year old executive, living in S. Florida. Stats: 6’2”, 185 lbs., brown hair, slim, no belly, clean cut, and well endowed.’ Then he went on to list his academic credentials, as if for a LinkedIn profile: ‘I am college-educated with a technical MA-degree form [sic] a major university, and an associate degree in arts. I speak three languages fluently and read two old languages.’

This juxtaposition of lewd and learned appears in still sharper relief on one of his wife’s sites, where passages from Goethe, Proust, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are interspersed with philosophical musings on Jesus’s teachings, the slippery nature of reality, and ‘the Perfection of Sluthood.’

After trawling regions of the Web I hadn’t even known existed, I discovered that Fritz’s wife, under her porn name, enjoyed a measure of fame. Before Yahoo shut it down in 2004, she boasted online, her ‘Femalebarebackgangbangextreme’ discussion group had nearly 50,000 members. The couple’s work belonged to a fetish genre built around fantasies of cuckolded husbands powerless to stop their wives’ lust for other men. The genre is called ‘hotwife.’

When I mentioned these findings to my own wife, she told me to read The Da Vinci Code. Studied closely, she said, the book could be a Rosetta stone for Fritz’s motives.

Dan Brown’s best seller is fiction, of course, but it draws on the work of feminist religious scholars like King. Its premise is that conservative forces in the Roman Catholic Church silenced early Christians who saw sex as holy and women as the equals — or even the saviors — of men. Threatened by these vestiges of pagan goddess worship, Church fathers defamed Mary Magdalene and enshrined the all-male priesthood to keep women out.

Brown’s chief point of departure from scholars like King is his made-for-Hollywood plot, which turns on a Catholic conspiracy to destroy evidence of Jesus’s marriage to—and child with—Mary Magdalene. A clandestine society whose past members include Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton has resolved to keep alive the secret of Jesus’s marriage, along with an ancient practice that celebrated the sanctity of sexual intercourse. In a pivotal scene, members of the society take part in a ritualistic orgy.

I wondered whether Fritz and his wife had seen in the book a way to sanctify their adventurous sex life, to cloak it in the garb of faith. The couple launched their first porn site in April 2003, a month after The Da Vinci Code was published. Perhaps they had spun a fantasy of Fritz — whose birthday happens to be Christmas — as a kind of Jesus figure, and his wife as a latter-day Mary Magdalene.”

Whatever his motives — there may have been many — Walter Fritz will fall somewhere on my list of Top 20 Literary Hoaxes when I get around to updating it.

Two helpful responses to Orlando

There have been the expected bend-over-backwards apologias in the wake of the Orlando shooting, and so it’s important to hold up two courageous exceptions:

1. Heina Dadabhoy (right), “Erasing LGBTQ Muslims & Islamic Homophobia”, a lesbian [EDIT: bisexual; see comments] who knows from experience how entrenched homophobia is in Islamic thought:

“Non-Muslims prone to apologism for Muslims, please check yourselves, as I am tired of having to check you. I am tired of hearing all about how much nicer Muslims are to you than they ever were to me. I am tired of biting my tongue as you engage in cutesy ‘experiments’ where you don oppression drag for shits and giggles and positive results where people like us cannot so merrily do the same. I am tired of having to keep you at arm’s length because I don’t know who you’d side with were I to be murdered for living loudly and proudly about my un-Islamic choices.

“As for the Muslims and ex-Muslims doing the same, especially those claiming to have progressive values, the jig is up. Islamic homophobia is real. This is the time when you’re going to either have to acknowledge that Islamic teachings and Muslim communities are rife with rampant anti-LGBTQ sentiment, or for you to decide that your wish for Islam to be seen positively matters more than the struggle of your GSM siblings. I hope you choose the less-selfish route.”

2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (right), “Islam’s Jihad Against Homosexuals”, the well-known human rights activist who refutes myths that either lax gun laws (according to liberals) or lax immigration laws (according to Trump devotees) are responsible for the Orlando shooting:

“The Orlando massacre is a hideous reminder to Americans that homophobia is an integral part of Islamic extremism. That isn’t to say that some people of other faiths and ideologies aren’t hostile to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community. Nor is to say that Islamic extremists don’t target other minorities, in addition to engaging in wholly indiscriminate violence. But it is important to establish why a man like Omar Mateen could be motivated to murder 49 people in a gay nightclub, interrupting the slaughter, as law-enforcement officials reported, to dial 911, proclaim his support for Islamic State and then pray to Allah.

“Following the horrific attack in Orlando, people as usual have been rushing to judgment. President Obama blames lax gun laws. Donald Trump blames immigration. Neither is right. There has been comparable carnage in countries with strict gun laws. The perpetrator in this case was born in the United States. This is not primarily about guns or immigration. It is about a deeply dangerous ideology that is infiltrating American society in the guise of religion. Homophobia comes in many forms. But none is more dangerous in our time than the Islamic version.”

Thank you, Ms. Dadabhoy and Ms. Ali, for speaking rightly where silver-spooned scholars and pundits fail us.

What gets lost in all the cries for more gun control are the ideological beliefs which so clearly drove Omar Mateen. He was reported by his fellow employees for being an Islamist, and interviewed twice by the FBI. He was on a terror watch list and then dropped off the list because there are too many people like him to keep track of all of them, which of course is what groups like ISIS count on. He invoked the Boston Marathon bombers and obviously meant to emulate them in carrying out a jihad attack. With or without legal access to guns, he would have in all probability killed a lot of people. He was ideologically driven to kills gays, as much as the Muslims who kill cartoonists of Muhammad. Orlando a hate crime? Sure. But hate crimes and holy wars aren’t mutually exclusive.