On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones

Spoilers through Season 6.

A year ago, I watched the Season 6 Finale of Game of Thrones with a friend of mine. That’s the episode, you may remember, that officially confirms “R + L = J”— or, in slightly less nerdy terms, the theory that Jon Snow’s real parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. For most of us, this revelation was more a foregone conclusion than anything else. I, like many, had figured this was coming for years, but in the moment, watching that episode, I was still shocked to see it finally happening. This friend of mine had no idea that “R + L = J” was a thing at all, and I was pretty excited to see his reaction. But as the episode came to a close and the credits rolled, all he had to say was, “really? Did they really have to do that?”

I was surprised, because this theory had become so grounded in my mind that I couldn’t imagine someone disliking, or being surprised by, its existence. Don’t get me wrong— I don’t like it either— but I had accepted it years ago, and besides, no one else had ever joined in my distaste for it. And so I asked him why he didn’t like it. He explained that one of the things he like best about Game of Thrones was how, despite the dragons and the ice zombies, the show had always kept on the grayer, more realistic side of storytelling. There are prophecies, to be sure, but there’s also a sense that nothing is stable, that we can never tell what’s going to happen. There’s a constant reassurance of the existence of the Red God and his Azor Ahai, but you don’t really feel like there’s anyone watching over these characters— and that includes the author. They’re on their own.

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More hair than personality.

Ned Stark’s death, so early on in the show, proved that no human is above the harsh reality of this world. The ostensible protagonist isn’t safe, not even in his own story. Most television shows don’t hesitate to get their central characters out of supposedly impossible situations with a deus ex machina, but Game of Thrones reminds us that that’s not really true to life. Even as the sword is being raised over Ned Stark’s head, we refuse to believe it’s really going to happen until we see it. Just as we think Oberyn Martell has defeated the Mountain, he’s undone by his own rage and arrogance. It’s painful and gruesome, bold and unapologetic. Most series show us what we want to see. Game of Thrones doesn’t like to make it so easy.

Jon Snow undoes all of that. While Ned and Robb and the various direwolves can’t escape the cruelty of this world, Jon has somehow risen above it, clad in apparently indestructible “plot armor”— what we call a particular character’s ability to escape seemingly inescapable situations, because the plot depends on their continued existence. Fighting a losing battle against the Wildling army, Jon is suddenly saved by the arrival of Stannis and his men. Betrayed and murdered by those he trusted (the number-one cause of death in Westeros), Melisandre resurrects him after keeping us in suspense for all of one episode. Surrounded by Ramsay’s forces at Winterfell, he is rescued by the knights of the Vale mere seconds before agonizing defeat.

This does not happen with any other character in the show. Compare the other two characters who are most likely not going to die any time soon: Daenerys and Tyrion. They, too, have found themselves in difficult situations, but when they’ve gotten out of them it’s due to their own savvy and skill. When Tyrion faced terrible odds at the Battle of Blackwater, it was his own plan to use Wildfire that saved the day. When Daenerys was captured by the Dothraki horde and brought to Vaes Dothrak to stand trial, she used her powers to kill the khals and convince the Dothraki to join her. These aren’t deus ex machinas— they’re people using impressive skills wisely. Jon, by contrast, isn’t getting himself out of these situations; rather, he’s gotten very good at being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. And now, he’s got the ultimate parentage. He isn’t a mere mortal; he is the Song of Ice and Fire. This last development cements Jon’s place in the world of Game of Thrones as separate, superior, special.

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Even Kit Harington doesn’t really like him.

One of the things that makes Game of Thrones such a special show— and one of the reasons so many people who aren’t fantasy fans watch it— is that it avoids the clichés commonly found in fantasy writing. Its characters are almost never outright good or bad, black or white. The show thrives in that ambiguity. There are a few characters who are completely good or bad— Ned and Joffrey come to mind, respectively— but mostly they come in shades of gray. Jaime pushed a kid out of a tower once, but we still kind of like him. Margaery Tyrell was smug and conniving, but she would probably would have been a good ruler if she’d ever gotten any real power. Robb Stark was honorable and well-intentioned, but also a gigantic fuckup. You get the gist.

But Jon isn’t really like that. He’s unfailingly selfless, brave, intelligent, and honorable. He doesn’t make mistakes. His flaws are job-interview flaws, like trusting too much and being too forgiving. When things go wrong, it’s because nobody listened to his wise words, because other people were the Bad Guys. When he has to hurt people, like Ygritte, it’s because of his commitment to a higher cause. When Melisandre tries to seduce him, he resists because of his devotion to the long-dead Ygritte. When he executes Thorne and the other mutineers, he insists on doing it himself because that’s the most honorable way to do it. When he reluctantly rises in power, first as Lord Commander and then as King in the North, it’s not because he wants prestige but rather because everyone else knows just how good a leader he’d be.

This is not how real humans operate— we mortals have flaws, which is why I prefer Daenerys. Because all Daenerys wants to do is make the world a better place, and she, like the rest of us, fucks up. Severely, and often. She has had to fight tooth and nail to get where she is, facing down asshole after asshole who come after her power, her dragons, and her body. Moreover, the issues Daenerys deals with are much, much less cut-and-dry than the ones Jon faces. Example: the question of “should we help the Wildlings move south of the Wall so they’re not overrun by the evil and scary White Walkers” is a much easier one to answer than that of “how do we best abolish slavery in an entire region and set up a new economic system that doesn’t leave the place in ruins but also makes life better for the former slaves, but that can also be implemented fairly quickly because we kind of have other places to be and we honestly didn’t mean to start a whole thing with this, we just didn’t think slavery should be a thing anymore.”

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With great power comes great responsibility. Unless you’re Jon.

Long story short: I don’t like Jon Snow because his storyline bores me. It is without a doubt the most clichéd storyline of the show and the most removed from reality. It’s the one that most emphasizes traditional manly heroism. It’s the one that most egregiously reduces its few female characters to the status of Love Interest. It’s safe, formulaic, and archetypal.

Maybe you like Jon Snow, maybe even for the very reasons I’ve laid out for not liking him. That’s fine — we all have different tastes. But you’ve got to admit that in a show so renowned for it complexity, unpredictability, and realism, Jon is fairly lacking in all of those things. I like Hero’s Journey storylines as much as the next person — if I didn’t, I couldn’t love Star Wars and Harry Potter as much as I do. But it’s just not what I want from Game of Thrones. I want to be challenged, surprised, and Jon Snow just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not saying I don’t want a Christ figure; that was going to happen one way or another on a show like this. I just want him (or her— I’m still really hoping it’s Daenerys) to be interesting, to be held to the same standard that the rest of Game of Thrones is. 

Maybe Game of Thrones has a few tricks up its sleeve yet that will make me love Jon as much as I do the other characters on this show, and to be honest I believe they do. I really do trust that Game of Thrones won’t take the easy route, and will lead Jon down the interesting path that characters on this show deserve. But I’m also starting to get a little nervous.

On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones

What’s iZombie going to do next?

*Note: I actually wrote this several months ago, before the third season of iZombie started. Some of the questions raised in this post have now been answered, but I think there are still things here that are worth discussing.

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With the entrance of early spring comes the moment we wait for all year, that other little thing besides the warmth that keeps us hanging on until the summer: teaser trailers.

Teaser trailers are the absolute worst because they remind us of all the shows we’ve been waiting months and months for, but reveal absolutely nothing. I just watched the teasers for the next seasons of Game of Thrones and iZombie, and came away, as everyone always does, feeling extremely unsatisfied. But the iZombie one did get me thinking about something, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.

iZombie is entering its third season, a milestone which could either  mean the show is still in its nascent stage—as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer— or that it’s showing signs of having run its course— as with Buffy’s lesser-watched spin-off, Angel. This raises a very interesting question about how, exactly, a show is supposed to plan its storyline. There’s a lot to consider there beyond plot, and it’s an especially important question with genre shows like iZombie. So with this discussion, I want to look at two successful series, both made by iZombie’s parent network, the CW—Buffy and Supernatural—in thinking about where iZombie might go next.

Buffy and Supernatural lie on different parts of a spectrum. There’s the “series” end, which Buffy occupies. That’s the type of show that focuses more on episode-to-episode action, rather than longer-ranging arcs. It’s where you find most sitcoms and police procedurals. Then there’s the “serial” end, which focuses more on the longer story arcs, and individual episodes are less differentiated. Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Daredevil lie at the extreme on this end. This is the end that Supernatural lives in.

Now, in truth both series are closer to the center on this issue. They both follow a general “monster of the week” format that belongs at the “series” end while also maintaining larger, more important storylines. In fact, in many ways Buffy more closely resembles a serial in many ways than does Supernatural, since as the show progressed it dropped the “monster of the week” formula in favor of seasonal arc. No, what makes me say that Supernatural belongs on the “serial” end is because for at least the first five seasons the show had a definite plan, a multi-season story arc with a single, focused direction. Buffy always had an open-and-closed, single-season Big Bad with nothing of the previous season’s arc carrying over into the next one.

The reasoning behind each choice is clear. Supernatural was confident that it could last five seasons, so it committed to a complex plot line that could only be resolved in five years. Buffy was constantly afraid of being cancelled, so every year it created an arc that could be resolved in a single season. There are pros and cons to each way. The Buffy way allows for infinite seasons: you can keep on creating open-and-shut season arcs as long as you can keep thinking of them, and you can use this to develop your characters however you want. But it also makes those seasonal arcs a bit shallow, less interesting. It really doesn’t allow for much complexity. By contrast, the Supernatural way allows for infinite complexity (as long as you tie it all up at the end), but with two dangers: first, the danger of being cancelled before the arc is fully completed; second, the danger of being forced to continue on after the arc is completed.

Imagine Game of Thrones being forced to keep putting out seasons after the story had come to a conclusion. Imagine if Danaerys had finally come to Westeros, if the Iron Throne had a new ruler, if the White Walkers were defeated by an as yet-unidentified hero. Imagine an entirely new plotline, haphazardly compiled together, a year after you and everyone else thought it had drawn to a satisfying close. That’s what happened, to a lesser extent, to Supernatural. An arc which had been created in season one, and then identified and drawn out in season two, had reached its climax in season 5 and there came to a close. I am nowhere near Supernatural’s biggest fan, but I will admit that the first five seasons had, at the very least, a very gracefully laid out story arc. And then there was season 6. And just like that, Supernatural, much like one of its two main characters, was dragged from the depths of the afterlife to carry on a confused and soulless existence for the rest of time. The show had absolutely nothing to do after the completion of Season 5, nowhere to go. It couldn’t pick up a Buffy-like format and just do monster-of-the-season plotlines: its viewers had become accustomed to longer, more elaborate story arcs, and to do anything else would feel like a letdown. They had to create a new one, unplanned and unwanted, out of thin air. And it shows— the series has become lost and meandering, agreed by all to be worse than its first five years, without a focus or a destination.

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That’s the magic of Buffy— it doesn’t need a destination. A very similar thing happened after Buffy, season 5. The endings of Buffy, season 5 and Supernatural, season 5 were so similar that I can’t tell if the Supernatural one was a ripoff or an homage. Anyways, Buffy was pretty sure it was going to be cancelled after season 5 so they decided to end it with quite the bang. And then it came back. Unlike Supernatural, though, they could just start back up again with a single-season story arc because it didn’t have the precedent of something more complicated. The downside is that this format can start to feel stale after a while, and the show’s writers may feel the need to keep raising the stakes after each season to ridiculous levels just to keep it feeling fresh. Look at Teen Wolf: in season 1, the villain was a slightly more powerful werewolf. In season 5, we’re now at horse-riding ghosts who kidnap and murder entire towns, working towards their entire goal of destroying the world.

On the flip side, the other danger of the Supernatural format is being cancelled before that multi-season storyline is fully completed. Angel is a good example of such a show. The mysteries that had been promised in season 1 were still unfolding during season 5 when Joss Whedon found out the show wouldn’t be renewed. That meant he had to suddenly try and wrap up the series—with all of its promised conclusions– in the half-season that remained. And, in my opinion at least, it shows. The fifth season of Angel is not good television, and the last few episodes are the worst of it.

Now I’m aware this feeling is not shared by everybody. I know several people who prefer the ending of Angel to the ending of Buffy, as the ending of Buffy wraps everything up, for the most part, and with most of its main characters still alive; Angel does the exact opposite. People who like Angel’s conclusion better prefer its “the fight never ends” mentality to Buffy’s “saved the day” mentality. I would respond that the fight will probably end when all the main characters die, which is what happens in Angel. However, I’m writing based on my opinion, which is that season 5 of Angel was crap for the primary reason that it was cancelled before its time. The various seasonal arcs— the prophecy of the vampire with a soul who could become human, whatever Wolfram and Hart actually is— were wrapped up hastily and in a very unsatisfying manner. I’m not saying Angel needed to become a human again for me to be satisfied, but I’d have preferred something a little less sudden and random than what actually happened. For me the ending of Angel was like the ending of The Sopranos: I genuinely thought something had gone wrong with my television when the episode cut to black and the final credits rolled. Surely I must have missed something. I’m all for people trying to experiment with the format of film television, but you can’t end a show like Angel, with five years’ worth of mysteries promised to be solved, without some sort of solid conclusion. This isn’t The Lobster or some other indie movie that relishes in not bothering to come up with an ending. This is a television show on the CW and I expect different things.

Bottom line, the Supernatural format is riskier but often has a better payoff than the Buffy format. That’s not to say I think Supernatural is in any way a better show than Buffy; quite the opposite, in fact. But most shows, if they have the time but know when to end, will flourish using the Supernatural format while many shows languish using the Buffy format. It takes quite a lot of skill to make the Buffy format work as a sophisticated show.

So where does iZombie come in? Well, iZombie is about to start its third season, which means it is entering a precarious adolescence that can either mark the beginning of newfound quality, as with Buffy, or hit its peak and commence a downward slide, as with Angel. In the end, it will either be considered one of the earlier seasons or one of the later ones. In both Buffy and Supernatural, which both carried on far beyond their third seasons, it’s considered the earlier part of the show. Buffy is still in high school. Spike isn’t even a main character. Sam and Dean are still hunting Demons-of-the-Week. In Angel, which only made it to Season Five, Season Three saw a bunch of shit go down that drastically altered the rest of the show. Season Three often begins or ends with a noticeable cast turnover, as with Teen Wolf, MisFits, and Glee.

iZombie has put itself in an interesting, I daresay difficult, position: the position of where to go after Season Three. The entire show, up until this point, has been following the Supernatural format: the time in each episode is split between a Murder-of-the-Week and the gradual progression of a very complex, multi-season arc plot: the mystery of how the zombie drug came to be, who is really pulling the strings, and what the final endgame is.

So what happens when that mystery is solved? Conspiracies can only go so deep. In Season One, Liv and the rest of the gang were flying more or less blind, focused on answering the most basic questions that come with zombieism (how many are there? how can they live? etc) and fighting against Blaine, who is a very small-time sort of villain and therefore a good jumping-off point for more impressive villains. Season Two brought us to Max Rager and its sinister lab, and showed us hints at government ties to the zombie epidemic. The final cliff-hanger revealed a cult of zombies apparently intent on transforming Seattle—and then the rest of the world— into a zombie utopia, with brains aplenty.

So the logical next step, as we reach Season Three, would be to further develop the mysteries introduced in Season Two— but can iZombie do that while at the same time neatly setting up for future seasons? In a show that has flourished on deepening the conspiracy with each season it’s unclear what they’re going to do after those depths have been thoroughly plumbed. They’ll have to find a new direction to go with— maybe the zombie wars really will break out. But that’s going to require an immense overhaul of the series, including at some point scrapping the Murder-of-the-Week format iZombie will only let go of when we prie it from its cold, undead hands. Does the show— and The CW— have the capacity to completely change up a series for the sake of continuing a good story? I guess we’ll see.

What’s iZombie going to do next?

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” highlights the show’s main flaws

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 8.21.14 AMWhat happened in this episode of Riverdale? Well, Archie befriended Cheryl in exchange for certain favors from her parents, then realized the Blossom family is evil (a truth already acknowledged about 500 times before) and pulled away, leaving Cheryl angry and out for revenge; Polly, who has been living at Thorn Hill, reveals to Archie that she believes the Blossoms are responsible for Jason’s death, which is the real reason why she’s still there. That’s the main story. In other news, Archie’s dad discovers the identity of his benefactor and Veronica sees firsthand the effects of her father’s misdeeds.

Look. I will be the first to say that something doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane- level quality for you to be able to watch and enjoy it. Something can still pose interesting questions even if it’s not the most sophisticated work of art or doesn’t project some auteurist philosophy. Thus far I have hand-waved those who criticize Riverdale for its somewhat shallow characterizations and aversion to realistic characters and dialogue. Where I draw the watch/don’t watch line, rather, is the point where such shallowness stops being fun and interesting and becomes boring and annoying.

Let’s compare Riverdale to its contemporary, the Netflix original A Series of Unfortunate Events. In many ways, the two shows are similar. Like Riverdale, the Netflix series prioritizes aesthetic over reality, a complex and multi-layered mystery over character development. But A Series Unfortunate Events embraces its weird and wholly unrealistic characters with a twinkle in its eye, while Riverdale refuses to admit its characters are anything less than real teenagers. I’ve given the show a pass up till this point because, again, the entertainment value has so far overpowered the shallowness. But for me, last week’s episode crossed that line into boring/annoying territory, and I am thoroughly irritated. I am talking, first and foremost, about Archie, who is both the show’s ostensible main character and its weakest link.

It has become a somewhat popular practice among me and my fellow millennials to assign houses of Hogwarts to fictional characters outside of the Harry Potter universe. Why? No real reason; it’s just really fun. Betty is the Gryffindor of the group, the one who breaks into a creepy hospital to find and rescue her vanished sister. Veronica is undoubtedly the Slytherin, more willing to coerce and manipulate to get what she wants. Jughead, with his pacifistic attitude and keen investigative spirit, is a Ravenclaw. Archie? Archie is nothing. He’s not even got enough character to be a Hufflepuff, the house we generally assign to those who lack defining characteristics. At best, from the point we’re at now, Archie functions as an object of female desire, yet as we have seen he appears to be a failure even at that.

I’m just saying, if Val and Archie had to break up, couldn’t it at least have been a little more interesting than that? Val and Archie have so far been nothing if not absurdly functional, yet now it seems as though Val is going to leave the show and our lives as abruptly and as randomly as she entered them. Val accuses Archie of “ignoring her” the whole time they have been together, which I haven’t seen any direct evidence of other than the fact that the show itself periodically forgets she exists.

Riverdale has no sense of object permanence; its writing team seems to have the same problem as Guy Pearce in Memento. Things that happened in one episode are forgotten or unquestionably resolved by the following one. The pedophile cellist, despite being set up as hugely important in the first half of the season, is now gone: out of sight, out of mind. The boorish jock Moose has made a sudden reappearance with no mention of his past relationship with Kevin the Gay Best Friend. Jughead is apparently now such a committed boyfriend as to be compelled to attend Betty’s awkward family gatherings, without any buildup to that whatsoever. And where the hell is Josie? No, the show can’t be expected to write all its recurring characters into every episode, but it’s not just that; it genuinely seems to forget about them when they’re not on screen. It is clear that Riverdale’s biggest weakness is the relationships it forces between its characters, and in no case is this clearer than with Archie.

Archie is the Good Guy, the infallible male protagonist who inevitably becomes the least interesting person in the room. But he lacks Harry Potter’s hero complex, Percy Jackson’s irreverence, Luke Skywalker’s temptations. In short, he lacks anything that could make him a watchable character. When confronted with a problem, he figures out the most moral decision within twenty minutes. The Ms. Grundy storyline, though terrible, at the very least introduced Archie as a slightly interesting personality. Now that that’s over, there’s apparently no moral dilemma that he can’t resolve.

The Archie plotline of this episode had potential, as Archie finds himself in the position of being offered riches and success in exchange for friend-pimping himself out to the Blossoms. As his friends remind him several times, the Blossoms are the enemy and Cheryl has never been a friend to them (in so doing disregarding her development of the last several episodes in which she seemed to be growing, but we’ll come back to that later). Archie responds by pointing out that he has nothing against Cheryl and that she says she just wants an ally there (which literally everyone else recognizes as bullshit), and besides, the Blossoms are offering him the chance of a lifetime. What’s the downside? Archie’s stupidity, though intense, is something we’ve all become accustomed to, and so we know that he’ll figure it out by the end of the episode.

In what way have the experiences of this episode affected Archie? In no way whatsoever, even though in its course we saw him ignoring his friend’s warnings and abandoning his values in pursuit of personal gain, letting Cheryl kiss him a surprisingly long time before pulling away, and losing his girlfriend because he was too wrapped up in everything else. Yet he has been given no time to reflect on his moral compromising, or even to mourn his breakup. Doubtless, he will soon forget about Val just as he forgot he ever liked Veronica and Grundy. Archie is actually dumb enough to let himself get pulled into Cheryl’s life, to let her walk up to him and talk to him with their faces mere inches apart, to stand there while she waxes eloquent about how he’s the only person who really knows her, without figuring out that she’s gearing up for a kiss. And then when it does happen, it takes him a moment to figure it out, letting her kiss him for a few seconds before breaking away and asking, surprised, “Cheryl, what are you doing?” as if nobody could have seen this coming. This is because Archie is simply too good to be tempted, or to even understand what temptation is.

What’s even more irritating than all this is the show’s treatment, or mistreatment, of Cheryl, who is shaping up to be that one character who alternates between good and bad from episode to episode without any actual development. It’s fine for her to feel conflicted about her allegiance to her terrible family who continually rejects her, and I’ll accept her going back and forth on this dilemma for a while. But the way she acts towards Archie’s gang plays out like an insufferable game of ping-pong: at one moment she’s inviting Veronica to a slumber party and laying bare her emotional insecurities; at another she’s back to bullying them all with her Vixens. Again, this kind of inconsistency goes from acceptable when the show is still getting off the ground, to unbearable nearing the end of the season. The final scene of this episode shows her furiously scratching out Archie’s face (and Polly’s too, for some reason) on the photo they all took together, crying and vowing revenge. This is an irritating direction for the character, given the fact that she seemed, in general, to be growing closer with Archie’s group. Can the writers please just pick an end point for Cheryl, and then set her on that path? Her constant vacillation is, like Archie’s kiddie-pool character development, starting to get unwatchable for me.

As usual, the show does a better job with the rest of its characters. We have started to see the horrible Alice Cooper turn over a new leaf, which is some nice development even if it’s presented with Riverdale’s customary lack of buildup. The weekly revelations about the Cooper family are always interesting, though with reveal on top of reveal it’s starting to feel like the show has no idea where it’s going with this and is kind of just making this all up as it goes along. Meanwhile, Veronica is brought face-to-face with a family that has been destroyed through her father’s corruption, suggesting, not for the first time, that she is the only character the writers really put effort into. Veronica, Ethel, and Kevin win the prize for strongest and most consistent storyline this week.

Look, I still have faith in Riverdale. I’m still interested in the story, I still like the characters, I still want to know how it turns out. For the most part, the storyline about the abuse Cheryl receives from her parents and extended family is a good one. It’s when Archie is tasked with carrying a storyline himself that the show’s weakest points become noticeable. And this is a real problem: Riverdale is not an ensemble show. It has a small core of important characters, at the center of which a single person lives, and this stems not only from the show’s treatment of that character but also from the place that he has in our culture. And for the central character of a show to be its weakest link is simply unsustainable. Archie should be able to be the main character while still having an interesting personality, while still encountering struggles and temptations and chances or growth. And just because this is a problem that befalls plenty of other stories (Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, Frodo in Lord of the Rings), that doesn’t excuse Riverdale’s laziness. 

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” highlights the show’s main flaws