It would be nice to say that the fury over Dany has abated, but if anything, things are getting worse. People apparently need grief counseling because they’re so traumatized by the “betrayal” of Dany’s character and the “unacceptable” Game of Thrones finale. Seriously.
There has been no shortage of excellent articles underscoring everyone’s stupidity: Amanda Marcotte’s
Don’t Be Shocked by Daenerys catalogs the mountains of evidence showing Dany’s innate cruelty; John Elledge’s Stop Whining About It shows Dany a political game-player as much as Cersei; Sean Collins’s The Tragedy of Daenerys Targaryen compares Dany to Frodo Baggins, who betrayed everything he and his friends fought and suffered for; and James Crossley’s The Khaleesi of the Liberals compares Dany to war-hawk Hillary Clinton, whose supporters during the 2016 election were in blatant denial of her bad traits — in the same way that Jon and Tyrion persisted in defending their indefensible queen.
What these articles don’t address is how fans were misled to esteem Dany so highly. They lay out the facts, but leave us wondering why the facts are still resisted. The closest we get to a reason is in Marcotte’s article:
“Fans lived in denial for the same reason that the almost exclusively male characters that surround Daenerys — Tyrion, Jorah, Jon — live in denial: Dany is young and she’s pretty and she embraces the nurturing title of ‘Mother.’ It’s tempting to see her good side and ignore her bad side, and the same fans who are scorning Jon Snow for not seeing it before fell into the same trap that ensnared him.”
But I think there’s a stronger reason than that. Physical attraction may have something to do with it (and for some more than others), but ultimately it’s too superficial an explanation for the mass hysteria that has resulted in 1.3 million signatures petitioning for a do-over of season 8. I would submit that the major reason lies in the double alignment of Dany’s character.
By the end of book 5 and season 5, the character of Dany has been developed in very clear parallel to Jon. She does for the Dothraki what he does for the Wildlings, each empowering “inferior” tribal groups and bringing them beyond their homelands in the service of progressive causes — whether to liberate slaves or fight against the dead. Their passion for justice gets them into serious trouble; in essence both Dany and Jon become captives of their own command: Slaver’s Bay collapses around Dany’s ears, because the world isn’t ready for abolition; the Night’s Watch rebels against Jon and kills him, because no matter how noble his intentions as Lord Commander, he has committed treason.
It’s this — more than anything else, I believe — that steers us into thinking of Dany as an analog to Jon. He’s the righteous ice of the north, she’s the liberating fire of the east, and that is, after all, the title of Martin’s series. So Dany must be a hero like Jon; she will ultimately transcend her genetic cruelty. Jon — as most of us long suspected by the point of book 5/series 5 — has those Targaryen genes too, so how bad can they really be? Fans had all but made up their minds on Jon and Dany by the end of the fifth act. They were the heroes we could count on.
However, I’m convinced that Martin (and the show writers) also constructed Dany in deliberate parallel to Stannis Baratheon. From Dragonstone, each plotted to seize the Iron Throne at all costs. Each is a militant egomaniac with an inflated sense of royal entitlement. Like Stannis, Dany has absolute zero tolerance for those who question her authority. They have a passion for justice, but it’s a justice that proves (unlike Jon’s) to be inflexibly merciless. Stannis rewarded Davos with a knighthood for saving the city of Storm’s End and rescuing Stannis — while also promptly cutting off Davos’s fingers for smuggling food in that very act of liberation. Like Dany would later do, Stannis came to the north’s rescue (saving the Night’s Watch in the battle against the Wildlings) and took seriously the threat beyond the Wall. Unlike most rulers, Stannis and Dany can see the forest for the trees; they can look beyond petty politics to address eternal threats.
But they’re also capable of cruelty and evil. Dany watched her brother die hideously (at the hands of Drogo) without a trace of empathy; Stannis arranged for his brother to die (by the sorcery of Melisandre) when Renly refused to accept his royal claim. Dany killed the raped victim Mirri Maz Duur in order to hatch her dragons; Stannis burnt his daughter alive to survive the war against Ramsay Bolton. Dany likes crucifixions; Stannis likes dungeons and executions. Dany is as much like Stannis as she is like Jon.
These double parallels probably have a lot to do with the misunderstanding of Dany. Fans see the Jon parallels all too clearly, but hardly the Stannis ones at all. We see what we want, and viewers who are outraged have made it pretty clear that they’re not really Game of Thrones fans after all. If they were, they would have seen both sides of Dany and accepted them impartially; and they certainly would have heeded the lesson which George Martin has been pushing from the first pages: that there are no true heroes in Westeros — least of all the ones we like.
It’s been a fun ride, Game of Thrones. I’ll miss you. Of the 73 episodes, here are 20 favorites I single out for special praise.
1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. The defining episode of Game of Thrones is the rare masterpiece that acquires instant legendary status — the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and Hannibal’s Mizumono, drama that is perfectly calibrated for maximum emotional effect. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution in season 1 seem banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes 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 Bran’s best scene before he becomes the One-Eyed Raven in season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the wildling attack; it’s 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 did complete justice to it.
2. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. When Bran finally emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time, the shit hits the fan. This is the Night King’s seminal moment, not the season-8 battle at Winterfell, which left much to be desired and did nothing with Bran at all. Here Bran 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 traumatizing Hodor and creating his mentally challenged state; it’s quintessential Game of Thrones tragedy. The white walker assault on the Weir Tree is quite a sequence, and the episode also has the best Ironborn scene of the series, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.
3. The Bells. Season 8, Episode 5. It’s the worst reviewed and most despised episode in the series, but don’t worry, give it time. I’m confident it will age well, and fans will look back and wonder at their stupidity. One reason I think people have been so misled about Dany is that her character has been developed as Jon’s parallel: she does for the Dothraki what he does for the Wildlings. They empower “inferior” tribal groups and bring them beyond their homelands in the service of righteous causes — whether to liberate slaves or fight against the dead. But for all Dany’s rhetoric about freedom and breaking the wheel, she’s at heart the opposite of Jon, innately cruel, and given to homicidal fits of rage when the wind blows wrong. That’s what happens in The Bells, and it’s the colossal tragedy the series had been building to all along.
4. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. For my money, this is the most underrated episode of the series and certainly one of the nastiest. 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 have written a lot more for the series. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments. Garden of Bones is a serious artistic achievement in an otherwise mediocre season 2.
5. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. 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 hundreds of feet to their 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.
6. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. 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. The episode also moves all the pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Vicious Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King 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. The Winds of Winter has been called “The Godfather” episode of the series, and for good reason.
7. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. Like a lot of episodes in season 1, this one packs loads of dramatic tension. 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 incredibly disturbing — though not much to Dany, who just watches calmly, providing the earliest hints of her unforgiving cruelty.
8. The Spoils of War. Season 7, Episode 4. There are two episodes that represent what the series has been building to from the start: Hardhome in season 5 (see my #10) and this one, The Spoils of War, in season 7. Dany, against the advice of Tyrion and Jon, decides she’s not messing around and goes Aegon on the Lannister army. Watching the Dothraki decimate the Lannisters is incredible enough, but seeing Drogon channel Balerion the Black Dread is completely staggering. I get battle fatigue easily, but this battle is a constant adrenaline rush, and there’s great stuff even before that. Jon shows Dany the cave drawings of the Forest Children allied with men against the White Walkers. Arya comes home to Winterfell and sword-practices with Brienne. The surviving Stark kids catch up under the weirwood tree, and it’s simply amazing how far they’ve come since their separation in The Kingsroad.
9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite being utterly dwarfed by the Mountain, he looks 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; though unfortunately, having escaped Joffrey she has a full season of Ramsay to look forward to before she can transcend herself in the way she needs to.
10. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. The number-two critical episode (the first is Spoils of War at #7) is a drastic departure from the novels, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long in the books: the undead threat beyond the Wall. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the threat against life itself. 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.
11. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I think I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, it offers even stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. It’s amazing how so many scenes in this episode resonate in hindsight in the wake of seasons 7 and 8. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya a sword to practice with. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s a lot of wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s 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 as you look back on it and see how far the characters have come (if they are still alive). I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.
12. The Iron Throne. Season 8, Episode 6. Despite the rushed and even comical feeling of Bran’s ascendance in the second half, I was deeply moved by the season finale and pleased by the fate of all characters save one: Tyrion’s. He should have been killed by Grey Worm; there was no reason for the Unsullied to keep him alive, unlike Jon. Everyone else went as they should. Dany was killed by Jon, and Jon sent to the Wall a criminal; our two Targaryen heroes fated to unhappy endings. Those who did get happy endings earned them (again, save Tyrion), and we’re left with Sansa as Queen of the North, and Bran the King of Westeros. The original title for Martin’s projected seventh book was not A Dream of Spring, but rather A Time for Wolves. The surviving Starks have gotten their due; the new era is in good hands. Though I wonder for how long. If power corrupts everyone, perhaps even a demigod like Bran is subject to it. (And if he really wants to warg into Drogon…) The first half is the ash-aftermath in King’s Landing, and Dany’s fascist speech; an extremely chilling piece of theater, Jon’s killing Dany is heartbreaking, as is Drogon’s trauma.
13. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. 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. One of the many gems in the amazing season 3.
14. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. Drogon’s flame strike in Daznak’s Pit is the main feature, 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 it’s brilliant 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.
15. The Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. 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. As much as 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. This is the long overdue payback for the Red Wedding, where the good guys actually win for a change. And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet at Mereen.
16. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. Here is 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. A stand-out episode in every way.
17. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. 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 one of Tyrion’s best moments, and certainly his most memorable.
18. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. The title refers to Lord Mormont, who is 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.
19. The Queen’s Justice. Season 7, Episode 3. The long-awaited meet between Jon and Dany is perfectly scripted, and I’ve watched the scene many times. They hold to their autonomy hardly realizing how similar they are. The Targaryen heroes command the love of their people and have done the unthinkable — Dany by bringing the Dothraki to Westeros, Jon by making common cause with the Wildlings. Both have suffered immensely for their causes. Dany’s crusade in Slaver’s Bay ended up collapsing around her ears, while Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings was treason which got him killed. There’s other good stuff, notably Bran’s return to Winterfell and reunion with Sansa, Cersei giving Euron command of the royal fleet, and the death of Olenna Tyrell who tells Jaime she killed Joffrey; a wonderful parting blow.
20. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. If Baelor (Ned Stark’s execution) is the fan favorite, The Pointy End right before it is actually even better. A lot happens in the episode, and it was scripted by Martin himself. 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 seriously gets your blood up, and is a surprisingly underrated episode.
Here’s an update of my TV pick list. Channel Zero is the most notable addition.
1. Stranger Things. 2 seasons (so far). 2016-2017. Watching Stranger Things allows me to relive my ’80s childhood in the best possible ways, and reminds me how lucky I was to grow up in a time when kids were independent, didn’t have helicopter-parents, and had far more creative outlets for their imagination than what you get today online. That sort of vivacious freedom is hard to find today. Like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, I went out with my friends and explored the world — in the woods or by the pond or across the sand dunes — and connected with my parents mostly at dinner time. The series is an homage to other things too, like old-school Dungeons & Dragons before the game became lame and commercialized. The kids are fantastic and their acting skills amazing, and this is critical to the show’s success. It was rejected my many network executives because the idea of kids as lead actors in an adult series was too daunting. As for which season is better, it’s a tough call, but for me season 2 tips the scales. I ranked the episodes here and here. And I was so inspired by Stranger Things that I put aside my disdain for fan fiction and wrote a trilogy that imagines these kids in their adult years, and their ongoing battles with the Upside Down.
2. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. Stranger Things may be my personal favorite, but objectively I would call Breaking Bad the best show of all time. It starts strong and gets stronger, never flagging on its promises, and I dare say if the show writers had gone to ten seasons they probably could have kept the momentum going. They settle for nothing less than excellence. Breaking Bad is the revenge tragedy of a school teacher who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord — people have learned to respect him or else — and the journey to that point is a brilliant character evolution. The suspense levels are insane; even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.
3. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age; the aesthetic is that overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is that Silence of the Lambs has been way superseded, something I thought impossible. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. Here’s how all the episodes rank. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s outrageous that the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.
4. Game of Thrones. 8 seasons. 2011-2019. With only one season left, George Martin has become increasingly irrelevant to his own creation. Basically we’ve been getting the sixth and seventh books before they are published. And like the books, the series has been a game-changer in fantasy, with wild plotting, understated magic, graphic sex, constant backbiting, and heroes who die unfairly in every other episode. The focus is on court intrigue and politics, and no one takes the supernatural threat broiling up north seriously until too late. If I had to summarize Game of Thrones in a sentence, I’d say it’s about power and political ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local and petty interests if they can. See how the episodes rank.
5. Channel Zero. 4 seasons (so far). 2016-2018. I tend to avoid anthology series, but there are exceptions where starting over each season with new plots and characters works. Fargo is a good example (though it doesn’t make my top-ten cut); True Detective and American Horror Story are not. You can’t do better than Channel Zero. It’s weird, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and pulls no punches. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous — and the last “room” almost impossible to figure out how you’ve been screwed over. Season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers who eat human beings, and who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. And season four’s “The Dream Door” is about a woman whose homicidal fantasy figure comes to life when she gets angry — sort of a psychological version of the Incredible Hulk. Season two is the one that really gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most terrifying material I’ve seen on TV. Season three is a close second; it may as well have been directed by the show runners of Hannibal, it’s that good.
6. Twin Peaks. 3 seasons. 1990-1991; 2017. The first season is classic, the second also very good though it lost its bearings a bit in the second half, and for my money the third is the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you will be disappointed. But if like me you think the prequel-film Fire Walk With Me is a masterpiece, chances are you’ll love season three and all of its weird and hideously disturbing elements. These are some of the most mesmerizing and esoteric hours of television you will ever see, a rare treat to lovers of dream-logic, painful no doubt to those who crave plain meanings. In the end, Cooper is able to use the knowledge he’s acquired from years in limbo to jump back in time and prevent Laura Palmer from being killed, and how this “resolves” is quintessential Lynch to be chewed over for many moons.
7. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. This is the Canadian science fiction show that makes cloning and governmental conspiracies believable. Few Americans have heard of these Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism and disease, and it’s almost impossible to come by on DVD. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).
8. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are brilliant and takes the show to a new level. Some were disappointed with season three, but not me. The glacial-paced storytelling was used very effectively to give space in examining the evil inside of Paul.
9. Damages. 5 seasons. 2007-2012. Glenn Close was born to play Patty Hewes: a high-stakes litigator who demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, disowns her son, and then tries having her own protégé killed. Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who respect without ever trusting each other. Some claim that Ellen’s willingness to have anything to do with Patty after the murder attempt undermines the show’s credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the point. When Ellen is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it’s as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one. She acquires power over Patty knowing her worst secret. The theme of forgiveness, and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, is precisely what makes Damages compelling. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.
10. The Man in the High Castle. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2018. Yes, this series is going downhill, but the first season remains a masterpiece, and the opening credit sequence is the best of any TV show I’ve seen in my life. Every time I hear the woman sing Edelweiss over the monuments of Nazi America I feel like I’m having a spiritual encounter. The show pulls off the impossible feat of making Hitler the guy you actually root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable American Nazi, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. Nazi America is portrayed as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite characters are on the Japanese west coast: Inspector Kido, who stops at no act of torture to preserve the honor of the motherland, and of course Trade Minister Tagomi. The first season’s final scene which sees Tagomi waking up to something unexpected is pure epiphany. The second season lost some of its edge in the second half with the departure of the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz, and the third season fell a bit short reaching too high. But I will keep loving this series until it jumps the shark.
Here’s what I have planned for a Halloween marathon. All of these are sequels, so that’s the theme this year. Including my own novella mentioned at the bottom.
Friday-Monday, October 26-29: Stranger Things, Season 2. (2017) It was released last Halloween, and with the huge delay of season 3, it’s a suitable time to rewatch it. Fans continue to debate whether season 1 or 2 is better, and for me it’s clearly the second, as it goes darker and deeper in ways I didn’t expect. With the innocence of Hawkins lost, the previous year’s events have taken a toll on everyone, especially Mike Wheeler. Most directors wouldn’t have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike Wheeler and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year, and that’s as it should be. His sister Nancy is also dispirited, which is another refreshing bit of realism. Barb may have been a minor character in season 1, but she certainly wasn’t minor to Nancy. Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown practically carry the season in their ferocious performances, and it’s honestly some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen. The biggest challenge of the season was how to reintroduce Eleven, and the Duffers nailed it. If they had reunited Eleven with the other kids too quickly, it would have cheapened her season-1 sacrifice. Saving her re-entry for the finale was the right decision, and few scriptwriters have the balls to make such decisions. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth when kids were more independent. There’s some of that still in season 2, but it’s much more character driven, and focused on the inner turmoils of the kids, Hopper, and Joyce as they confront a much worse threat from the Upside Down. Mix all that with the Halloween theme, and this sequel season should become your #1 marathon priority.
Tuesday, October 30: The Exorcist III: Legion. (1990) Everyone knows The Exorcist II: The Heretic is the worst horror sequel ever made, and it’s also the worst horror film I’ve seen period. The Exorcist III is the true sequel, based on the novel Legion written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote and directed the film adaptation. I can’t imagine Legion as the product of a film maker, no matter how talented, who isn’t also a novelist. It’s approach is patient. I remember when I first saw it in the theater (in 1990), and there were two scenes in particular that had me panic stricken: the Gemini Killer’s hideous recounting of his sins in the confessional booth before he kills the priest, and Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X in the psychiatric ward, who is revealed to be the wasted figure of Father Karras, who died in the first film. There are some who even think Legion is a scarier and better film than The Exorcist itself, and though I don’t agree with that, I do acknowledge that you can make a case for it. An acquaintance of mine described the film this way: “You can’t imagine anyone making this film who doesn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. It pull no punches and carries a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ ” Of course, I would say that statement applies to The Exorcist, and yet in some ways I find Legion more deeply chilling. It’s way underappreciated, and I plan to be terrorized by it on the night before Halloween.
Wednesday, October 31: Halloween II. (2009) I’m not kidding when I say this is the best entry in the Halloween franchise. Carpenter’s classic (1978) and Zombie’s remake (2007) are usually the ones praised, and they are good, but the Carpenter original hasn’t aged well on me (a major reason being the use of actors in their late 20s to play high-school teenagers, which I find insufferable), while Zombie’s remake is a very mixed bag. It gave Halloween more bite for a 21st-century audience, but it tried to be too many things at once — a prequel, a remake, and a Rob Zombie film. In the sequel to his own remake, Zombie finally did everything on his own terms. This is not a remake of the original Halloween II, which was a shitty film in every way, like most of the Halloween franchise. It’s Zombie continuing where his remake left off, but going in a different direction taken by the ’80s sequels. It panders to no one, and Zombie doesn’t care whom he offends with scenes of nasty brutality. He gives serious attention to the trauma suffered by Laurie from events in Halloween, making Halloween II the rare slasher that shows what mindless killing really does to people. The character of Dr. Loomis almost steals the show: Malcolm McDowell is able to go places he could only touch in Halloween given the constraints of the remake. Here he’s a complete asshole, in love with himself as a celebrity, and no longer gives a damn about Laurie Strode or Michael Myers. He attends promotional events for his book, goes on tirades when when audience members don’t fawn over him, and repeatedly insults his assistant for offering him kind but unwanted opinions. I’ve seen Halloween II many times, and I’m going to enjoy it again this Halloween night.
On this front, allow me to shamelessly plug my fan-fiction novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation, which is the sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years. I will start posting the chapters to The New Generation on Sunday, October 28. Like the second season of Stranger Things, it’s set during Halloween, and I tried milking the theme for all its worth.
Now that I’ve written a time travel story, I have a deeper appreciation of the genre’s challenges. It’s hard to make time travel work logistically and still have compelling drama. So here are my thoughts on the good and bad ways time travel has been handled on screen. I’ll focus on four models: (a) the single timeline, (b) multiple timelines, (c) the repeated loop, and (d) the universe fights back.
A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)
The most elegant model is the single timeline, or time stream, or universe, which amounts to a closed loop. In its simplest terms: the future time traveler was always in the past. Any “changes” made to the past are not changes at all, because they already occurred. It’s impossible to change the past, since the past has already happened. Which came first, chicken or egg?
A famous example of this model is used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In the story Harry and his friends are saved from dying by their futures selves, and so Harry later realizes that he has to go back in time to save his past self. Everything plays out exactly as before, and there’s no change on the timeline.
A more obscure example is the romance Somewhere in Time (1980), which uses the trope of self-hypnosis as the means of time travel. A playwright named Richard Collier travels from 1980 back to 1912, after being haunted by an encounter with an old woman who approached him out of the blue and told him to “Come back to me”, then disappeared. He later learned that she was a stage actress named Elise McKenna. Through self-hypnosis he sends himself back to 1912, where he meets Elise and they fall in love; their romance is later interrupted when he unintentionally transports himself back to 1980. Like the Harry Potter story, this forms a closed loop: Richard sends himself back in time because Elise tells him to; but Elise can only tell him to because she has already lived through their love affair when he sent himself back in time.
The following three films are my favorite examples of the single timeline model, in which everything is predestined. When I say “predestined”, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or religious sense. Single timelines have nothing to do with the issue of free will. I mean simply that everything has already happened: the future self was always in the past to begin with. The future self is not changing anything or creating new events by traveling to the past; it’s impossible to change the past.
1. Predestination (2014). The gold standard of the single timeline model is based on a short story written by Robert Heinlein, and portrays what sounds impossible: four characters of different genders and living in different times are the exact same person: Jane from 1945-1963; John from 1963-1970, and then 1985-1992; the Barkeep from 1992+; and a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber sometime in 21st century. Again, they are literally the same person. (In the above photo, Barkeep John is on the left, speaking to younger John on the right, in 1970.)
This single person interacts with him/herself as follows: The Barkeep is from the late ’90s, but he has a time machine, and he bases himself in the year 1970, to await a meeting with his younger self. After listening to his younger self vent rage against a world that has treated him unfairly, the Barkeep takes him back to 1963, and drops him off for a night, where he impregnates Jane who is himself. She has the baby who is her own self, but there are complications with the birth that require a sex change surgery. After the operation, she takes the name of John. The Barkeep travels from the future to steal the baby after she is born, and he then takes her back in time to the year 1945, and leaves her at an orphanage, so that she can start growing up from the year 1945. The Barkeep takes John to the year 1985, where he becomes a counter-terror agent. In 1992 John encounters the Fizzle Bomber, and his face is maimed in an explosion. John now looks totally different — he has the face of the Barkeep. He acquires a time machine from his employer, and retires, traveling back to the year 1970 where he bases himself, to await the younger John, and fulfill the above cycle of events. Barkeep John returns to his time in the future, and at some point in the 21st century encounters the Fizzle Bomber again, but this time he sees that it is himself, much older, with grey hair and a beard. He vows that he will never become a terrorist and shoots the Fizzle Bomber on the spot. The movie ends with the clear implication that he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber, as he is being slowly driven crazy by all the jumps he has taken through time.
Here’s how it maps out:
I don’t think any writer has ever outdone Heinlein on this concept — that four people of different genders can be the same person in four different time periods, and all from the same (closed) time stream. The filmmakers adapted it superbly.
2. Timecrimes (2007). A rustic Spanish countryside isn’t a typical setting for a time travel story, and the novelty is refreshing. A man named Hector travels back one hour in time, and then does so again, so that there are three versions of himself for the duration of that hour. During that hour, the second and third versions of himself uphold the initial sequence of events, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. The only exception is when the third version of Hector tries to kill the second version (thinking that he’s protecting his wife from himself), but fails in the attempt. Everything plays out as before, and nothing is changed. It’s a fatalist drama of the single time stream, but it delivers plenty of surprises nonetheless.
The key is to understand that throughout the film there are always three Hectors in the hour duration. Hector 3 was always in the background, plotting his shenanigans against Hector 2. He fails to kill Hector 2, but he does injure him (as he himself had been injured in the same way), which causes Hector 2 to bandage his face and enter the forest with a woman whom he assaults. This prompts Hector 1 to investigate, which is what we see towards the start of the film: The first version of Hector sits on his house lawn looking into the forest with a pair of binoculars; he sees a woman being attacked by a “stranger” in a head bandage, and so goes to investigate, gets stabbed by the “stranger” (who is himself), and then flees up the forest path. He comes to an isolated shed where a scientist has created a time travel bath. The bath can only send people back in time for as long as it has been turned on, and Hector 1 hides inside it, not knowing what it is, and gets sent back in time one hour, where he becomes Hector 2. And so forth. The following diagram maps out the hour’s events:
What’s interesting is that Hectors 2 and 3 go out of their way to uphold the original events they’ve experienced (with the single exception of Hector 3’s failed attempt to kill Hector 2). On some level, the Hectors understand that changing time, if it were even possible, would wreak havoc by killing his own self. There is brilliant tragedy in the way Hector 2 finally returns home still bandaged and accidentally causes his wife (or who appears to be his wife from a distance) to fall off the roof of their house and die. This is why he goes back in time again, to become Hector 3: to kill Hector 2, even though this would result in his own death. Hector 3 fails, but he manages to save his wife by sacrificing another innocent woman in her place — who of course was really the one killed all along. Timecrimes is an underappreciated effort, and my second favorite of the closed loop model.
3. The Terminator (1984). Forget the lousy sequels — and yes, I’m including Terminator 2 in that indictment — the first is the only good one. Not surprisingly, it’s also the only one that forms a singular timeline in which nothing changes. In the far future, machines have taken over the world and are warring on humankind. A man named John Connor leads the resistance against them, and he stands a good chance of turning the tide. The machines become desperate, and decide to send back a terminator in time, to kill John Connor’s mother in the year 1984, so that she will never give birth to John — a preemptive abortion, in effect, before she even gets pregnant. However, the humans in the future learn what the machines are trying, and so they too send back a man, Kyle Reese, to protect Sarah Connor from being assassinated by the terminator. It turns out that Reese is John Connor’s father, but Reese doesn’t know this. In the past, while protecting Sarah against the terminator, he falls in love with her and gets her pregnant. The terminator eventually kills him, and Sarah succeeds in killing the terminator. Sarah knows she will have to teach her son someday that he is destined to lead the war against the machines, and that he will have to send Kyle Reese back to protect her, so that he (John) can be born. The spare robot parts left behind by the dead terminator ensured that machine technology will evolve in such a way that will allow the machines to take over some day. All of this forms a closed loop: neither past nor future is changed.
Unfortunately, the franchise ruined a good thing (as franchises often do), serving up sequel after sequel in which history changes in cheesy and non-compelling ways. In Terminator 2 we learn that the arm and chip of the first terminator technology was improved dramatically. Most significantly, the protagonists are able stop the apocalypse of Judgment Day — which means that not only will John Connor never lead a war against the machines (in the present timeline), he will never have been born (in any future timelines), since he has no reason to send Kyle Reese back in time. Films 3-5 try salvaging new drama from this, and the result is a mess. Here’s the plotting of all five films:
It’s not that there is anything wrong with the multiple timeline approach — as I explain below, I actually think it’s the superior model — only that the Terminator franchise didn’t use it well; the stories of T2-5 are lame. Let’s look now at the better ways the model has been used.
B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)
Changing history is fun and offers high-stakes drama, but it’s hard to do right by. Most filmmakers blunder at some point. The idea is simple enough: the act of time travel automatically changes the past and forces the universe on to a different trajectory. It creates a new timeline, or an alternate history, a new causal chain, or a parallel universe — whatever you want to call it (see right diagram). Because it is a new timeline, it operates independently of the original one. That last part is what often gets muddled.
The most celebrated example of this model is Back to the Future (1985). Marty McFly goes back in time, and when he returns to the present, he finds that his parents are much more enjoyable people. For the most part the logistics are handled well, but there are some silly elements, as when for example Marty’s body starts to fade as he intervenes in the past, and starts to prevent his parents from falling in love. This misses the whole point of new time streams. Marty can’t possibly erase himself, because he comes from a time stream in which those threats to his existence never happened. If his parents don’t hook up, all that means is that there won’t be a version of himself born in the new timeline; it has no bearing on any versions of himself in or from other timelines.
Another fan favorite is Looper (2012), a thriller about time-traveling hit men. As a film it’s pretty good, but it gets hopelessly lost up its ass in mixing the two models. On the one hand, sending someone to the past creates a new timeline. On the other hand, that new timeline is treated as singular and closed, as when we see older versions of time travelers effected by what’s happening to their younger counterparts. So for example, when Young Joe carves “Beatrix” into his arm, it instantly appears on Old Joe as a scar. The problem is that Looper is supposed to be about a closed time loop when it’s really about a malleable future. On top of that, Joe’s sacrifice at the end is for nothing, because it won’t necessarily do anything to stop the Rainmaker’s creation. Looper does okay as a dramatic thriller, but it fails as a time travel story.
Here are two films which use the multiple timelines model flawlessly. And they’re excellent drama besides.
1. Deja Vu (2006). Arguably Tony Scott’s best film, Deja Vu is a film I could talk about all day. One critic has called it a digital version of Vertigo, for the way it explores obsession, fractured identity, and time travel. Considering the terrorist theme, Déjà Vu is surprisingly apolitical, and unlike Scott’s other films (like Man on Fire), it finds its solution not in revenge, but in the obsessive desire to go back in time and prevent the whole thing from happening — to save hundreds of lives, especially the one person you can’t stop thinking about, even if you don’t stand much chance of surviving the trip. Who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington?
Denzel is Doug Carlin, a law official who has been recruited by a team of government agents who use a time machine to look into the past and solve difficult crimes. But Doug’s ambitions exceed theirs, and he persuades them to use the machine for time traveling purposes, so as to change events and prevent a ferry bombing from ever happening. First he sends a note back to himself, and when that fails (doing far more harm than good), he sends himself back, saving Claire and the hundreds of people from being killed.
People have criticized Deja Vu as if it aspires to the single timeline model. They say it’s impossible for Doug to have gone back in time, because he ends up saving the day. Since he prevents the ferry explosion, there is no crime to investigate, and so he will never be recruited by the surveillance team who use the time machine, and will never be sent back in time; the new future isn’t the old one. That’s missing the colossal point. The new future isn’t supposed to be the old one. Doug changed the past in order to save lives. This isn’t the predestination model; it’s the multiverse model, and the film clearly telegraphs that when the team of scientists debate the nature of time, and Shanti starts talking about divergent time streams.
Here’s a map of the time streams in Deja Vu:
It’s an excellent map, though hard to read; you have to click on it twice, then scroll around. I’ll summarize the timelines, and highlight in blue the events we see play out in the film.
There need to be at least four streams to account for all the nuances in Deja Vu, though there could obviously be more; we simply don’t know how many times Doug had to send himself back in time until he finally saved the day. But at a bare minimum:
- In Timeline 1, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco van on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer van from someone else instead. He uses the Blazer to blow up the ferry Tuesday morning at 10:50 AM, and Claire remains safe and alive in this timeline. When Doug comes on the scene, he is recruited by the team with the time machine, and they use the machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber who is casing the ferry early Monday morning. Sending back this note in time creates Timeline 2.
- In Timeline 2, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer from someone else instead, just as in Timeline 1. However, the note sent by Doug to himself from the future (in Timeline 1) arrives on his desk early Monday morning around 4:00 AM, and his partner Larry sees it. Larry takes action and goes to the ferry, where the terrorist shoots him, but not before Larry puts enough bullet holes in the Blazer that causes the terrorist to seek out Claire after all. On Tuesday morning he steals Claire’s Bronco, kidnaps her, takes her to his house, and then kills her, burning her alive and dumping her in the river. He then uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body (not in a red dress), and when he investigates her home, there is no message for him on the fridge. As in Timeline 1, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. But later, he also demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 3.
- In Timeline 3, the events start out exactly as in Timeline 2, but now Future Doug (from Timeline 2) arrives in a hospital on Monday night at 7:00 PM, where he is barely resuscitated. He wakes up on Tuesday morning at 8:05 AM, steals an ambulance, and goes to the terrorist’s home; he rescues Claire but gets shot by the terrorist, who gets away in Claire’s Bronco. Future Doug then takes Claire back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, and helps bandage him. In case he fails, he writes a message to himself on the fridge: “u can save her”. He leaves Claire at the house and goes to the ferry alone at 9:45 AM. The terrorist returns to Claire’s house, kills her, and dumps her body in the river. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug fails to stop him and is killed. The terrorist uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug — Present Doug, who belongs to this timeline, and the Doug we first see in the film — comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body, in a red dress, and when he investigates her home, there is a message left by his future self (from Timeline 2), saying “u can save her”. As before, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. Later, he demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 4.
- In Timeline 4, the events proceed exactly as in Timeline 3, up to the point that Future Doug (from Timeline 3) rescues Claire and takes her back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, helps bandage him, and he leaves the note to himself on the fridge. But this time he does not leave Claire at the house; he takes her with him at 9:45 AM to the ferry, even though he doesn’t want to. He does this because he remembers seeing the blood swabs in Claire’s trash bins in Timeline 3, which look exactly like his own right now from being bandaged; he realizes that if he doesn’t do something different, or against what he wants to do, events will simply repeat as before. The terrorist goes back to Claire’s house to kill her, but she isn’t there. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug and Claire both stop him and save the day, though Doug is killed in the process. The film ends at this point: The new Present Doug comes on the scene, and he will have no crime to investigate and so will not be recruited by the surveillance team. He won’t see the clues left for him by his future self on Claire’s fridge; and he won’t need them. In saving the day, his future self finally closed the loop. All he will have to account for is a dead body — his own — when it is found. He sees Claire on the ferry and gets an odd feeling of deja vu, as if they’ve met before.
That’s how you write a good time travel story. And it raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of deja vu. When we experience it, is it because we’re “remembering” things that happened or are happening to ourselves in different time streams in different ways?
2. Primer (2004). It’s the most realistic time travel film ever made, and not surprisingly, since it was scripted by a scientist. The plot centers around two young geniuses, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. They can use the machine to go into the past, but only as far back as when the machine was first turned on. This is actually how a time machine would probably work if we ever succeeded in creating one. A physics professor at the University of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been trying to create a device like this for years now — by using a series of circulating laser beams that swirl into a time tunnel. Walking into this tunnel would allow someone to go back in time, as long as it was to a point after the machine was switched on. So if you turned on the machine on September 1 and left it continually running to December 31, you could go back four months, but no more. That’s how the time machine works in Primer, and also how the time bath works in Timecrimes, which I covered above.
The first time Aaraon and Abe use the machine, they go back six hours (which takes six hours to do, sitting in the box of the machine), and make good money for themselves in stock trades since they know how the market will perform. That’s the easy trip to understand, shown in the first chart below. By the end of the film, things have become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with all the multiple versions of the characters intersecting multiple timelines. To understand the full picture — which may take four or five viewings — click on the larger chart below the first one.
The logistics in Primer are handled with an incredible level of precision, and even if you can never keep all the details straight, it’s an amazing viewing experience, one that I keep finding myself drawn back to.
It’s worth noting that while the multiverse theory is the one increasingly embraced by scientists, for others it seems like an inelegant solution. Steven Lloyd Wilson is one such curmudgeon, expressing his dislike as follows:
“While the multiple timelines model has the appeal of being logically consistent, it has a glaring problem. It’s a brute force hammer of solving the problem, like multiplying by zero to demonstrate both sides of the equation are equal. It’s just plain inelegant. It also has the story flaw of essentially rendering time travel moot. If anything that can happen, has happened in an alternate timeline, then the actions of the characters do not matter one bit. Going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby doesn’t change anything, because there is still an original timeline in which he doesn’t die.”
I fail to see how time travel is rendered moot by the fact that there are other timelines — millions of them, probably — in which events proceed either slightly differently or very differently. This is what scientists talk about all the time, even aside from the question of time travel. And to say that the actions of the characters don’t matter is nonsense. If I can go back and save the life of a friend by creating a new reality, that obviously matters to me. I don’t care how many alternate realities there are in which my friend dies, because I’m able to experience the new reality in which he lives. The actions of the characters matter to themselves, even if they don’t matter to critics like Wilson who want the “elegance” of all time streams producing the same result (which is ridiculous). Or as Doug Carlin says in Deja Vu, “You can be wrong a million times, but you only have to be right once.”
I believe the multiple timelines model is the superior model. It’s the harder one to nail down and make dramatically effective, but when done right, the result is sublime.
C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)
In the do-over, scenarios are repeated until the protagonist triggers a reset, usually by dying, going to sleep, or getting knocked unconscious. The protagonist then wakes up and repeats the scenario again, making different choices, until he or she can finally escape the loop.
For whatever reason, do-overs are often saturated with comedy. Perhaps it’s because repeating yourself over and over again is something you have to roll with and play for laughs in order to keep your wits. In Groundhog Day (1993), the Bill Murray character relives the same day over again, until he finally obtains love and happiness. In The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Tom Cruise gets dropped on the field of battle after brutal training sessions, continually killed and reset until he destroys a monster alien. In Happy Death Day (2017), the Jessica Rothe character keeps waking up on her birthday and getting murdered later in the day, until she figures out who the killer is (her sorority roommate). In all of these examples, the tone asks us to not take the story too seriously.
My favorite examples of the do-over are one that almost no one has heard of, and another that everyone knows.
1. All the Time in the World (2017). This episode from Dark Matter (season 3, episode 4) runs the gamut with hilarious comedy, emotional poignancy, and dark tragedy. For my money, it’s the best do-over ever scripted. One of the Raza’s crew members starts living the same day over and over again, and half the battle is trying to convince his fellow crew members that they are caught in the same loop, even though he’s the only one who can remember reliving the events. They never believe him, even though he can predict every little thing each one of them is about to say and do. Finally he persuades the ship’s android to teach him French, so that when the crew hear him speak a language he’s never known or studied, they’ll start taking him seriously. There is also a serious side to this episode, as the crew are able to use his foreknowledge of the day’s events to foil an attack on the ship. And once the source of the time loop is discovered (a device confiscated from a scientist), the android tries an experiment, and in the process, she experiences a tragic future where all the crew are dead except the girl Five, who is now aged and offers dire prophecies. Five also tells the android how to break the time loop. I have made a video-clip of Three’s French tutorial and his hilarious breakthrough in persuading Two. And also the end clip — Five’s doomsday prophecy of the far future — for a complete switch in tone.
2. A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’ classic is a variation of the do-over. Scrooge gets to visit the future of his current timeline, and even though he can’t affect the timeline directly, he observes things which allow him to change his actions in the present. So instead of the timeline he’s on which results in Tiny Tim’s death, he’s able to make a different choice, and create a new timeline in which Tiny Tim lives. A Christmas Carol is probably the best do-over ever written, though few people think of it as a time-travel story.
D. The Universe Fights Back
This is technically a multiple timelines model, because it is possible to change the past. But doing so results in cosmic disaster. The universe resists any attempts to reorder it, and nasty shit happens when those attempts succeed. That implicitly appeals to the single timeline model: the timeline “must be protected from change” at all costs — or else.
A famous example is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping goes back to prevent JFK from being assassinated. He finds it extremely hard to do; the closer he draws to saving Kennedy, things work strangely against him. He manages to save Kennedy, but the world eventually goes to hell as it’s torn apart by world wars. It’s a fatalist view, and a lot like the single time stream model: the past is destined to stay the past; if it doesn’t, then calamity rains down. So Jake undoes his mistake and allows JFK to die after all; this gets the universe back on track.
It’s a silly idea — that the cosmos would “care” about altered events so as to “react” against them — but it produces potent drama if done right. As in this story:
Father’s Day (2005). The plot is simple, and the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, and the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in Doomsday. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. Rose’s father, realizing he should be dead, sacrifices himself to get the world back on its proper course.
As I said, the premise is silly, and it doesn’t help that script writer Paul Cornell can’t seem to decide whether he wants his story to be a multiple timeline or single. In a scathing review of Father’s Day, Martin Izsak writes:
“People today don’t seem to appreciate how ridiculous it is to try to protect a past timeline as if it’s the only one in existence, and will let the boogeyman out of the closet if it’s messed with. You can experience as many other versions [of a person, or an event] as you can time-travel back to, and it would be nearly impossible to make all the ‘right’ choices to re-live any of them exactly as you remember them. So the Doctor, sadly, makes an ass of himself trying to defend Cornell’s model of time, and rightly gets tripped up when Rose confronts him for being hypocritical about the heroics he proudly displays in almost every other setting he lands in… I officially present Father’s Day with the Wooden Turkey Award for being the stinker of the 2005 Doctor Who season.”
I actually believe that Father’s Day holds up as one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, despite the accuracy of Izsak’s criticisms.
In the days before I discovered real cinema, I watched the Karate Kid movies as part of my high-school obsession with martial arts. Mostly I watched the Sho Kosugi ninja flicks, which were non-stop adrenaline stunts filled with high body-counts and piss-poor acting. The Karate Kid films didn’t have the former but plenty of the latter. They were family films that made you feel warm and fuzzy when underdogs triumphed against bullies in the safe arenas of tournaments. They were campy and cheesy in the extreme, had laughable dialogue, a painful top-40 soundtrack, and embarrassingly contrived scenarios. I never saw the third and fourth films in the franchise (which were apparently so bad that even the core audience heaped scorn on them), nor the 2006 remake. But when Cobra Kai was announced last week as a worthy successor to the first two Karate Kid movies — it has a 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes — I had to see for myself what the fuss was.
I will say this for Cobra Kai. If it’s still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly, even aside from the cheesy elements I mentioned. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. (There is an amusing swipe at this in Cobra Kai, where Johnny uses Miguel as his own slave, having him wash the windows, mop the floors, and clean the toilets of the Cobra Kai dojo. When Miguel asks if there’s any particular way he should be doing these tasks, Johnny says it doesn’t matter.) As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.
By making Johnny Lawrence the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the writers of Cobra Kai have brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they’ve taken the original hero in an unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends.
But aside from even that, Daniel is astonishingly judgmental. He condescends to Johnny, kicks him when he’s down, tries to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the local tournament, and launches a pathetic crusade to shut down the dojo. He does this by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where the new Cobra Kai has just opened, which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. This is a supremely asshole move, and Daniel’s wife calls him on it. But I was frankly put off by the entire LaRusso clan. Daniel’s wife sounds like she’s always talking down to people, his cousin is a useless twit, and his daughter a priss. The LaRusso home gives off a superficial Miyagi vibe, and at work Daniel has turned some of the best things Mr. Miyagi taught him into cheap gimmicks — karate chops in car commercials, and the bonsai trees he gives away free to car buyers. Daniel does revere his deceased mentor, but has little to show that he actually understands the “balance” that he lectures others (his daughter, Robby) to strive for.
It’s the Cobra Kai losers who sell the series. As actors they have the better performances, and as characters the better balance. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until Aisha proves her potential by slamming his best student on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). She soon becomes one of the best Cobra Kai students, and certainly one of the series’ best characters.
The very best however is Miguel. He’s what Daniel LaRusso should have first looked like, but of course that would have never happened in an ’80s film. Instead of finding a sage-like Mr. Miyagi to rescue him from his bullies, Miguel comes under the punishing tutelage of Johnny, and they play off each other wonderfully. As far as I’m concerned, Johnny is the true hero of Cobra Kai, in thrall to a harsh version of karate but unwilling to sink to the depths Kreese did. He has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole. His upbringing was less than kind, and his son Robby wants nothing to do with him. He’s politically incorrect (and, amusingly, a stone-age Luddite who doesn’t know what “a Facebook” is), showing hints of racism, sexism, and homophobia, while proving that in practice he’s really none of these things — as long as his students keep up. (He reminds me of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartmann: “I am hard, you will not like me. But I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops, or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless.”) Miguel takes his sensei’s flaws in stride, and Johnny comes to think of him as a son.
As for Johnny’s actual son, Robby, he’s the new Daniel, but again an inverted one, a troublemaker instead of a bullied victim. He’s a delinquent who steals for a living, and despises his father so much that he applies for a job at Daniel’s car dealership just to piss Johnny off. He gets the job, and rather predictably, he soon becomes Daniel’s reformed karate student. This happens by a very contrived chain of events, and is the weaker narrative arc of Cobra Kai. Daniel basically takes Robby on as a way to atone for his sanctimony throughout the first six episodes, and in short order he’s having Robby “wax on, wax off” every car in the lot (that shit is no more convincing as a way to teach karate today than it was in the ’80s), and then taking him on field trips out in the wilderness to practice dramatic kicks while balancing on perilously thin tree limbs.
Everything builds to the tournament finale and solid payoff. It’s better than the Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which make viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And I have to give the writers credit for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. Surely Daniel’s protege would win, as Daniel always did in the films? But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it.
The epilogue scores for continuing to portray Daniel in a less than flattering light. On the drive home from the tournament, Robby remarks that with Miguel’s victory Cobra Kai is now back on the map and will soon take over the region. Daniel retorts, “Over my dead body,” and then takes a detour to what looks like an abandoned home. He leads Robby inside, throws on the lights… and Mr. Miyagi’s old home is unveiled, for the purpose, as Daniel explains it, of training more students in order to combat the rise of Cobra Kai. As soon as Daniel said “over my dead body”, I saw the Prince of Sanctimony again; and with the foreshadowing of what will surely be a Miyagi dojo in season 2, it’s obvious that Daniel is gearing up with more self-righteous measures against Johnny. And as if Johnny doesn’t have enough to worry about from that corner, the biggest surprise of all comes in the final frame: the return of John Kreese, who has all along been presumed dead. He strolls into Johnny’s dojo, congratulates him on his victory, and tells him they have “much to do” now that Cobra Kai is back. That sounds like a hostile takeover, and Johnny looks appalled; he’s been fighting Kreese’s ghost for years. Trapped between Daniel and the Devil, he has ugly challenges ahead of him, and season 2 has a lot to deliver on.
I don’t want to oversell Cobra Kai. It’s really the same thing as before: a campy family drama with a godawful soundtrack and situations that make you roll your eyes and smirk. But if you were invested in Karate Kid I & II in your coming of age years, and now find them embarrassingly unwatchable, you may just find yourself falling under Cobra Kai‘s hideous spell.