Stories Sans Speeches

This week I’ve come across two books that share an unusual link in their use of language and dialogue. The first – and more well-known – is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the story of the Compson family, and the decline of their Southern sensibilities that happens alongside the degradation of the family ‘honour’. The second is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Canterbury Tales-esque (there’s another one for the reading list) story of several travellers meeting at an inn in a forest to tell tales involving tarot cards.

This essay (if you can call it that) will focus on the way these novels tell stories given the absence of proper means to do so. The first sixty-odd pages of The Sound and the Fury are narrated by Benjy Compson, the mentally retarded youngest son of the Compson family. Since Benjy is incapable of differentiating time, the story jumps back and forth in his lifetime without proper signposting for the reader. As such, this is one of the most confusing and strangest passages I’ve ever read in a book, and I found it almost wholly impenetrable without referencing SparkNotes. The reason for this is that the lack of “signposting”, as I’ve referred to it, means that it is impossible for Faulkner to structure the story as to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. We start somewhere in medias res, but we never know quite where. Unlike with the later chapters in the book, there are no breaks that allow us to orient ourselves around points of significance; The Sound and the Fury’s chapter is a near-impenetrable wall of paragraphs. We are, quite literally, walled off from the world as we understand it, trapped in Benjy’s half-comprehensions of the universe.

It is worth noting that Benjy Compson is not an unreliable narrator; indeed, in comparison to his brothers Quentin and Jason, who narrate the later chapters, he is a remarkably straightforward narrator due to his lack of complex emotional entanglement. Where others see symbols and extrapolate meaning from them, Benjy sees things, and is acutely aware of even the slightest difference. At the end of the novel, he becomes distraught when he is driven the wrong way back to the house, breaking his familiar routine. This calls our attention to the contradictory ideas of change and constancy in the novel, and the detrimental effects of both. The Compson family are afraid of change, stuck in an hourglass that keeps on running, yet at the same time they do not react to the fact that their quaint Southern existence is running away because they are too wrapped up in trying to maintain the status quo both within the family and without. Quentin’s suicide is as a result of holding onto pent-up feelings too long; the same can be said for Jason’s anger. Benjy, meanwhile, is unbothered by petty things like themes and ideas and critical analysis. With him, what he sees is what you get, and we don’t get opinions on it. Though his vision may appear convoluted, it often presents startling clarity – and horrifying clarity at that, given that only the absence of a sound mind in the Compson family has allowed for clear thought to prevail. But from that, we can extrapolate something else: coherency of language is not needed to tell a story.

Meanwhile, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino’s narrator and the travellers he meets are struck silent by a magic spell or some such other. Someone produces a deck of tarot cards and the cards are laid out on the table, and the storytellers, each telling a tale in turn, move the cards to produce stories. The narrator manages to discern a meaning from the arrangement of the cards – a Two of Coins might mean wealth, for example, material or otherwise, or payment, or only gain its true meaning in conjunction with another card such as the Ace of Clubs. Calvino’s narrator offers us a possible interpretation, but we as readers are expected to draw our own conclusions; so long as they fit the cards, they are reasonable. Then all the cards are used up, and those around the table begin to move the cards to fit a different order; this raises some interesting ideas of intertextuality, of old elements being recycled to make different stories, of tropes being continually written and subverted. The link to The Sound and the Fury is a little tenuous, but both books use language in ways that we don’t expect, proving that a story without words is possible, if you have a little imagination.

Or something like that. I’m not sure where I was going with this. It sounded much more coherent when I started writing it down. But then again, so does everything.

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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Dragon and the Wolf”

“The Dragon and the Wolf” isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t quite make up for the narrative failings of the previous two episodes, but it’s spectacular in terms of the acting, directing, and cinematography, and a massive 81 minute runtime means that there’s more space for everything to play out instead of being rushed. The scenes in King’s Landing felt like a return to GoT of old, and the confrontation between Tyrion and Cersei may be my favourite scene of the season.

It’s a very well-paced episode, but its greatest strength lies in the way it weaves its character arcs. Arguably, there’s as much character development in “The Dragon and the Wolf” than there was in the previous six episodes of the season. Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, Daenerys and Jon all have a mini-arc of their own in this episode, and you can make the same argument for Theon, Arya and Sansa.

My issues with “The Dragon and the Wolf” are mostly limited to minor quibbles (Jon’s name is Aegon? Seriously?) and the fact that it doesn’t do quite enough to resolve some of the season’s earlier storytelling issues. Yes, Sansa and Arya were revealed to be on the same side, but that doesn’t excuse her weird behaviour in “Beyond the Wall”. Also, the lack of #CLEGANEBOWL was concerning, but #BoatSex mostly made up for it.

King’s Landing would be the logical place to start this review. I was a little concerned to see that the first dialogue of the episode was some of the usual ‘witty banter’ that Benioff and Weiss are known for, but the conversation quickly took a turn away from cocks and eunuchs to something more prescient. I don’t know how Grey Worm got to King’s Landing, or who controls Casterly Rock, or how Euron sailed back round Westeros (again), but I’ll let these problems slide, for now.

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The first 12 minutes of the episode concern the buildup to the parley in the Dragonpit, and it was good to see the reunion between Podrick, Bronn and Tyrion – something I was pleasantly surprised by, as I’d completely forgot it was happening. Brienne and the Hound also bonded over their not-quite-parental ‘love’ of Arya Stark. The location used for the Dragonpit and the scenes surrounding it is beautiful, and the long takes are fantastic. More on the cinematography later.

Things get going once our main characters reach the Dragonpit. Dany comes soaring on her dragon, in a scene that, frankly, is a little shoddy, but would have been impossible for the VFX team to make believable. Everyone shares some tense looks. We get teased for Cleganebowl, though ultimately the brawl that was promised never takes place. But that’s okay, because this is a talky episode, and a massive fight in the middle would have been a bit distracting. On that note, I can see why they got Jeremy Podeswa to helm this one, because the man is a master at long, complicated dialogue scenes. Between his excellent blocking and direction and the damn-near-flawless performances of all the actors (both the five principals and the supporting cast), the whole Dragonpit scene is one of the show’s most memorable, and it doesn’t rely on fancy VFX. And to give credit where credit is due, Benioff and Weiss wrote some truly outstanding material for this scene.

However, the best scene of the episode is the one which comes after, where Tyrion ominously walks back into the Red Keep and sits down for an audience with Cersei. Lena Headey’s Emmy is long-overdue, but if there’s ever been a scene that is Emmy gold, I think this is it. Headey and Dinklage have some of the best screen chemistry in the entire show, playing off each other’s subtle cues perfectly. Headey’s Cersei is like an onion; peel away the layers and you will reveal a vulnerable soul, but beneath that vulnerability is iron, and beneath that are yet more layers. It’s a strange world where a woman’s reluctance to kill her brother – one of the show’s most beloved characters – is heartbreaking. And as for Dinklage, his performance opposite Headey reminded me of why I loved his character so much in Seasons 1-4. This is also one of Dinklage’s very best episodes, matching up to “Baelor” and “Blackwater” – the former of which he won an Emmy for. It was one hell of a performance. And once again, this scene was impeccably directed and shot.

Cersei comes out and proclaims that she’s going to fight alongside the Northmen. Of course, this is a lie – like her pregnancy, I suspect – and I think Tyrion knows it. Nonetheless, Jon and Dany accept that this is the best that they’re going to get, and head off to Dragonstone together. The rest of the King’s Landing arc is the build-up to Jaime finally saying what we’ve been waiting for him to say since Season 5: inspired by Brienne and Tyrion, he tells Cersei that if she wants to take back the Seven Kingdoms, she can bloody well do it alone. There’s a moment where Ser Gregor threatens Jaime – to which I had a genuine “holy shit” reaction – but then, in a brilliant scene that parallels the Cersei-Tyrion encounter from earlier – she shows mercy once again, and displays some weakness under that cold veneer. She heads off after him, but stops himself. She must be a queen.

Over on Dragonstone, there’s a council meeting where Jorah attempts to subtly cockblock Jon, but the real point of these scenes are the conclusion to Theon’s fantastic arc in this episode. While I felt the “I have no balls” trick was a little cheesy and over-the-top, it does a wonderful job in keeping to the ironborn idea that “what is dead may never die”.  Theon gets back up, beats the shit out of ratface, and then falls down in the sand. This shot, designed by DP Gregory Middleton, with Theon in the foreground and the bluffs of Dragonstone behind him, is absolutely perfect.

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Up at Winterfell, Littlefinger gets schooled. Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa was so genuine that I believed that Sansa had fallen for his shtick, and that this was ‘bad writing by those untalented hacks D & D’. So I was pleasantly surprised when the scene was turned on its head, and Sansa, in a brilliantly written scene, turns Littlefinger’s words on him and has him comprehensively torn to pieces. Then there’s Aidan Gillen’s reaction; he goes from mild confusion to desperation to a complete broken man in a scene that demonstrates the full extent of the actor’s ability. Farewell, Littlefinger. I won’t miss you… but at the same time, like all good villains, I think I will.

On the whole, I still don’t think this justifies the Winterfell storyline this year, which has been damnably poor in places. Though at the same time, I don’t think Benioff and Weiss could have conceivably written anything else. Winterfell is “on hold” this season, and for the plot to last until the finale, Littlefinger has to make some dumb decisions and Bran has to not bother talking to his sisters.

The scene ends with Sansa’s “the pack survives” line from the trailer. I was pleased to see the reprisal of the battlements shot from “The Winds of Winter”. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this shot closes out the series, with the surviving Starks standing solemnly together on the wallwalk as we cut to black one last time.

Sam turns up at Winterfell unexpectedly late in the episode, and immediately shares his findings with Bran, in a scene that felt a bit ‘off’ for reasons I can’t really describe. Bran then does some shady stuff with the fire and transports himself to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s wedding. I found it strange that Bran didn’t already know about this; considering that he’s done so much ‘research’ into Jon’s lineage, his findings didn’t really amount to anything. After so many years, we finally see Rhaegar… and he’s a bit disappointing, looking a bit like a discount Viserys. Personally I think would have been better to tease us with the joining of hands, but not to show Rhaegar’s face, but it’s not a huge problem, I suppose. This scene is intercut with Jon and Dany having tastefully directed sex on a boat… #BoatSex it wasn’t everything it had been cracked up to be, but then again, what more do you want? Also, Jon Snow’s name is Aegon, apparently. I still think Aemon would have been a much better name for him, but it’s not like everyone’s going to be calling him Aegon next season, is it?

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The episode ends with the Wall coming down. The Night King soars in on Viserion and burns the whole thing to rubble, allowing the army of the dead to swarm through the gap while an ice dragon soars overhead. It was what I’d been expecting since the start of the season, but seeing the great icy monolith – one of the few remaining constants in Westeros – come crashing down truly emphasized the power of the foe that the Seven Kingdoms will be facing in the wars ahead.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the episode that has rescued Season 7. It’s not a quiet episode, but it is reflective and thoughtful, and the reunions we saw here will not be easily forgotten. More than that, from a visual and cinematographical standpoint, this is possibly the most beautiful episode in the entire show. Whatever missteps Podeswa and Middleton made in previous seasons are always and completely forgiven. I’d be surprised to see this director back for Season 8, but with this sort of legacy, does it really matter?

It would be remiss not to recognise Michelle Clapton and Ramin Djawadi for their roles in this episode. Having everyone all in black has been unsettling, but it has paid off, and Djawadi’s score – particularly “Truth” and “Army of the Dead” – has been exemplary.

As for Benioff and Weiss… well, they’ve made some mis-steps with this season, notably in “Beyond the Wall”, but if you want proof that they can write, look no further than this episode. Oh, I’ll nitpick them to death, but I respect these ‘talentless hacks’ really.

Review: Doctor Who, Series 10, Episode 9, “Empress of Mars”

This review contains SPOILERS for the ninth episode of Series 10 of Doctor Who, entitled “Empress of Mars”, and for all episodes preceding it.

In the wake of the convoluted and ultimately disappointing Monks Trilogy, “Empress of Mars” is a standalone episode that acts as writer Mark Gatiss’s love letter to the show in what may be his final season. Everything here is Gatiss to the core – the Victorian theme, language, and charm; the return of the Ice Warriors (which he previously explored in Series 7’s “Cold War”) and dialogue that is occasionally atrocious. But it – like all Gatiss episodes – has a heart, and that’s what elevates this above some of the season’s lesser episodes.

It has weaknesses, but “Empress of Mars” is Gatiss’s best story since “The Crimson Horror”; like so many of his episodes, it is a fun, straightforward monster-of-the-week story, with inventive resolutions that don’t always make sense, and emotional moments that don’t quite resonate as the writer intended them too. The episode is not bad, but it isn’t particularly memorable, either.

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The episode opens with a fairly standard pre-credits sequence taking place at NASA, but that’s quickly forgotten as we move to Mars, which features some impressive work by the CG team – though obviously the episode budget did not stretch all the way to rendering the effects of the Ice Warriors’ weapons, which were… odd. We come upon a group of British soldiers who speak in a roundabout fashion that is irritating and endearing by turns. And their personalities are mostly just flat stereotypes. While the roles of Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Jackdaw (Ian Beattie) were played very well, the nature of their characters was quite one-dimensional. Anthony Calf was the standout guest character of the episode with his performance as Colonel Godsacre, but his journey from coward to hero was unsurprising and baffling at the same time – why would the British start hanging him for treason, and then change their mind? And the less that is said of Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi), with his dreams of “a little church back home down by the river”, the better; his final ‘characterization’ scene was stilted and obviously telegraphed his iminent death.

Gatiss didn’t seem quite certain what to do with the Ice Warriors, either. While the idea of a Martian queen gave the episode a notable twist on previous Ice Warrior adventures, and both Adele Lynch and Richard Ashton gave imposing performances as Iraxxa and Friday respectively. However, the progress of the plot required the characters to make massive u-turns in their personalities that were mostly unexplained, and therefore they felt oddly sidelined in a story that was meant to be all about them.

Peter Capaldi didn’t have much to do this week, and Matt Lucas had barely anything – but maybe that was a good thing, as it allowed the Ice Warriors and redcoats to take centre stage. I also have to wonder whether this script was written prior to the announcement of Bill as a companion – it felt as though Clara Oswald could have featured in the exact same role with exact same lines. Which is not to say that Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas were bad, of course; they are continuing to be one of my favourite TARDIS teams. But they were a little flat, too, this week.

The best thing about “Empress of Mars” is the sheer theatricality of it: Ice Warriors versus British soldiers on Mars! Green armour and redcoats! What more could you want? It’s a brilliant amalgamation of ideas let down only be a weak execution in places – incidentally, both director Wayne Yip and composer Murray Gold have done better work in the past. It’s a not-quite character drama, a not-quite monster story, a not-quite deconstruction of a classic enemy. But it certainly gets points for trying to be all of those things, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on any of them. I rarely think a Doctor Who idea should be revisited, given the sheer variety of possible adventures. But Ice Warriors on Mars is certainly something that can be done more than once.

Finally, it seems appropriate to offer a retrospective on Mark Gatiss. Yes, he wrote “Sleep No More” and “Night Terrors” and a few other episodes that didn’t exactly hit the spot. But I always get the sense that Gatiss is one of Who’s most charismatic writers, and one who cares deeply about the material he is adapting or trying to introduce. And while I can’t say I love any of Gatiss’s episodes, I certainly respect them for what they are: sometimes silly, sometimes sad, sometimes moving, sometimes mad.

Next week: “The Eaters of Light”, which sounds cool, even if I have no idea what to expect from it.