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Game of Thrones: The Illusion of Choice & “Eastwatch”

GOT - Tyrion & DanyThis season, we have seen more callbacks and shouts than ever before. That’s not surprising given that it’s time the pieces were put together. But of all the past pieces coming back, the one most interesting to me was the call to Tywin Lannister’s old statement to his children. “The lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of the sheep.” Tywin lived a life free of concern for those he deemed lesser than himself — which covered pretty much everyone in Westeros. He managed this via ruthless maneuvering and positioning his enemies into situations where they felt they had little to no choice in their actions. He would present them with a choice, when in reality, there really was no choice to take but the one he had deemed mandatory. We see much of this happen in this episode.

For starters, we have Daenerys Targaryen giving the remains of the Lannister army the chance to bend the knee and swear fealty to her — or die. In the presence of Drogon, she appears to give them a clear choice and most take it. Most, but not Lord Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill. Though he has just switched allegiances from his liege lords, the Tyrells, to the Lannisters, he finds bending the knee to a girl from far away lands too much. He refuses to bow and follow Dany and, despite the protestations of Tyrion, Dany follows through with her threat. Lord Randyll and his son, Dickon, pay for their refusal with their lives. This appears to cow the rest of the resistant forces into bending the knee. Not much of a choice.

Nor, does it seem, does Queen Cersei see a choice in her alternatives. Despite the pleas for peace from Jaime, she sees only two alternatives: fight and die or surrender and die. Jaime, for his part, was saved from Drogon’s fire by Bronn, who could not believe that he had dared charged at the Dragon Queen. But Jaime saw no choice in the matter, like his sister. It was flee and die later or take his chance to stop her right then and there, even if it meant his death. These choices do not appear appeasing but to Cersei but she accepts that she must fight for her life if she’s to have any chance to keep it. Her life and that of her unborn son growing within her. Given that she just learned that Lady Olenna was the true murderer of Joffrey, she is desperate to find a way to bring this new life she and her brother have created unto the world. So when Tyrion arrives with an offer for an armistice from Dany, she’s willing to take it in order to buy time for her next move. It’s why she lets him enter and leave King’s Landing unharmed.

And why is Tyrion bringing an offer of armistice? To give Jon Snow, the King in the North, a chance to range beyond Eastwatch by the Sea and capture one of the wights that mindlessly follow the Night King’s commands to prove to Queen Cersei that their claims of an Army of the Dead are true. Without that proof, Cersei and Dany won’t ever give each other the chance to unite their armies against the Night King and the White Walkers. Jon, as one of the few men to have ranged into the north beyond The Wall and lived, has the experience and the know-how of how to fight against the White Walkers and their minions. He might be King in the North but he sees no choice in his going — he must lead this expedition no matter the cost.

GOT - PartyHe won’t be going alone though. The newly-returned Jorah Mormont and Gendry Waters arrive in King’s Landing not soon before he’s set to depart and agree to join the King in the North in his daring ranging. Ser Jorah does it for the sake of the Dragon Queen — in whose service he’s always wanted to be — while Gendry — found by Ser Davos back at his forge in King’s Landing — appears eager to join forces with the bastard son of his father’s best friend. Gendry has spent his time training himself in using a warhammer, King Robert Baratheon’s old weapon of choice, and manages to show his skill with it in saving Tyrion from corrupt Gold Cloaks. They will also be joined by Tormund Giantsbane, the Brotherhood Without Banners and Sandor Clegane, the Hound. All of them brought by different reasons. All of them holding grudges of different kinds against others — Gendry against the Brotherhood, Tormund against Jorah — and yet united in a purpose that they seem unable to choose against.

As Jon travels north, Littlefinger is looking to sow distrust in his home. He notices the disagreements between the Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya, and how Sansa is rising in the estimation of the lords encamped at Winterfell. This causes seeds of doubt to grow inside Arya’s mind. She knows the kind of girl her sister was and how she saw herself as better than everyone else. So Littlefinger deceives Arya into finding the old raven message Sansa sent to Robb, telling her their father was a traitor and he needed to go to King’s Landing to bend the knee. Knowing Arya and how fiercely she holds her love for her father and her siblings, Littlefinger is hoping that the young assassin will not be able to see the deception in the letter nor the meaning behind them that Cersei Lannister put into Sansa’s writings. Littlefinger, so far on the outs with most of the new power structure, is looking for a way to fashion a new choice for the lords of the North: one where either Sansa is Queen and he’s behind her or where Arya and Sansa are dead and the North is in chaos.

A similar chaos though may claim The Reach. The former breadbasket of the Seven Kingdoms, stripped by the Lannisters before Daenerys burned much of their gains has seen the end of both their lords and their immediate successors in the Tyrells and the Tarlys. Well, one Tarly does remain: Samwell. He tries to make the archmaesters see the truth in Bran’s message about the White Walkers. He even provides them with an avenue for impacting the course of the war: by confirming the truth of the message to the high lords and ladies of Westeros. Instead of seeing it as a choice between doing something and doing nothing, the archmaesters instead see it as the foolish notions of a boy who has lost much in the War of the Five Kings. And dismiss it.GOT - Sam & Gilly

So Sam makes the choice that seems right to him: he takes the scrolls and books he thinks will best give him a clue as to how to defeat the White Walkers and leaves the Citadel with Gilly and baby Sam in tow. He abandons the order that was set to him by his Lord Commander to become the Night’s Watch next maester and decides to go for parts unknown with his trove of knowledge, the woman he loves and her child and his house’s ancient Valyrian steel sword, Heartsbane. What will happen if he returns to Horn Hill? Archmaester Ebrose chose to not reveal his father’s and brother’s fates to Sam. Will he find his mother and sister, those family members closest to him, in desperate need of him? By the vows he swore to the Old Gods, he’s a Man of the Night’s Watch, sworn to renounce all claims, lands, titles and inheritance.

More importantly though, to consider, is did he bring the book Gilly was reading from Archmaester Maynard which spoke of a secret annulment and new marriage by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen? The implications of a new marriage pact by Rhaegar, should he have married Lyanna Stark, are numerous. Would Sam choose to reveal them? Would he do so to help bring forth a new candidate to the Iron Throne for the good of the Realm or to hurt the woman who just burned his brother and father alive? Every one of these characters thinks they have choices in the way the story goes, but most of the time, they are reacting to what others have done. In that way, like Tywin Lannister used to do, they are presented with only one course of action and no real choice at all.

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Game of Thrones: The Veterans & “The Spoils of War”

GOT - Arya WinterfellIt has been approximately four years since the start of this story. Four years since a raven flew north from King’s Landing, bearing the news of Lord Jon Arryn’s death and the coming of King Robert Baratheon to Winterfell to his Warden of the North, Lord Eddard Stark. In that time, we have seen no less than three major wars start, rage and end: the War of the Five Kings which swallowed up every part of Westeros, the War for The Wall between the Night’s Watch and the King Beyond the Wall’s army and the War for Slaver’s Bay between the forces of Daenerys Stormborn and the Slave Masters. We have seen great houses rise and fall. We have witnessed the deaths of heroes and villains alike. And we have seen monsters of every kind leave scars on the minds and bodies of our protagonists. No one still alive in this tale doesn’t carry some kind of battlescar, physical or mental.

In the four years since she left her home, Arya Stark has been a student of fencing, a hidden traveler, a runaway, a captive, a steward to Lord Tywin Lannister, a prisoner of The Hound, a trainee of the Faceless Men and finally, a deliverer of vengeance. But finally walking back into her ancient home provides her with a moment to take stock of all that she’s experienced in that time. Evading her sister’s guards, she makes for her father’s tomb — which is where Sansa finds her. The two sisters, fiercely unique and at each other’s throats for much of their lives, find common ground in all the tragedy that has befallen them and in the strength with which they’ve kept moving forward. But if Sansa thinks she’s gotten her sister back, she’s slowly coming to a realization that this Arya is more than the tomboyish girl who she last saw at King’s Landing. She’s a fighter, a warrior and someone who speaks of a list of targets.

However, even Arya is a bit taken aback at the quiet fortitude with which their brother, Bran, speaks of things he should not know. Let’s consider that he manages to shock the usually unflappable Petyr Baelish when he gives Bran the dagger that was meant to kill him all those years back. Back then, Littlefinger claimed it was his until he lost it to Tyrion Lannister — a claim that drove Catelyn Stark into taking the Imp prisoner and starting the War of the Five Kings. Now he’s stating he has no idea as to its provenance. Bran doesn’t buy it because he knows the truth — even if he cannot voice it yet. Such is the extent of his powers that, the more he gains access to the Three-Eyed Raven’s visions, the more he stops being Brandon Stark. Meera Reed calls him out on it but her words fail to reach the young man she once protected. The power he gained may be enough to turn the tide against the Army of the Dead — just as Arya’s skills may be enough to stop Cersei Lannister in her tracks — but the cost has taken much of who they were from them for good.

Game of ThronesDown in Dragonstone, meanwhile, Jon Snow is looking to forge an alliance with Daenerys Targaryen. The King in the North and the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea have also suffered, been brought low and risen stronger to take their positions. In the depths of the dragonglass mine, Jon shows Dany the ancient carvings of the Children of the Forest, depicting their great war against the White Walkers. How the Children united with the First Men to fight off their greatest enemy during the Long Night. Jon takes that moment to explain why he cannot bend the knee to Dany but still seeks an alliance with her. For Jon, his experience being betrayed by the Night’s Watch have taught him that he should not do something that would cause his bannermen to lose faith in him. Bending the knee to Dany might cause them to doubt, right as they need one another more and more. For Dany though, the situation is getting more tense. Upon learning of the loss of the Tyrell army, she is ready to unleash her dragons against King’s Landing herself. Tyrion tries to talk her out of doing so — fearful of the vengeance that the Mad King’s daughter might wreak upon Westeros.

Jon, for his part, is still unsure of what to make of Dany — though Ser Davos seems to think there’s a growing sense of infatuation developing. Perhaps in Dany, Jon finds a kindred spirit: someone who inspires her followers and not someone who buys them or frightens them into fighting for her. He does find it odd that Missandei would not consider leaving Dany’s side or if she even could despite her protestations — she could be as much a prisoner in Dragonstone as he is.  Then, he gets an unwelcomed reunion with the former Prince of Winterfell, Theon Greyjoy. Having been rescued by some of Yara’s Ironborn, Theon is there to petition Dany for help in rescuing his sister. Theon has lost much that made him what he was in the years since he was Ned Stark’s ward. Though his losses are physical, it’s in his psyche where the damage is strongest. Having lost his manhood, his title and even his sense of self, he may fear losing Yara most of all — and in that, losing the last bit of himself.

They are not the only ones who have paid much for what they have gained. Queen Cersei Lannister has lost all three of her children, her father and, some might say, her humanity in order to finally seat the Iron Throne. But she has slaughtered all those in her path and now seeks unchallenged dominion. Thanks to the gold her brother looted from Highgarden, the Crown’s many debts — years of work at the hands of the unwitting Robert Baratheon and the devious Littlefinger — are set to be paid. The Iron Bank’s envoy, Tycho Nestoris, is impressed and seeks further business with the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her goal requires the Golden Company, the greatest sellsword company in Essos. Tycho agrees to assist her goal — as soon as the gold is in his possession.

GOT - Tycho & CerseiThe gold, along with the grain, is being escorted from Highgarden back to King’s Landing by Jaime Lannister, Bronn, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon. Jaime, aware of the incoming winter, asks them all to ensure no granary or farmhouse is left unchecked. They harvest The Reach for the sake of the capital in a desperate attempt to supply their own forces against winter and war. Jaime seems unhappy with the act but knows it needs doing for his and his sister’s sake. Bronn gets a chance to smirk down on the naive and young Dickon Tarly, Sam’s younger brother and a man who had never been in battle before. Unlike his father and brother, Dickon had yet to face any foe with his life on the line.

Their wagon train, however, comes under attack of Dany, Drogon and the Dothraki horde. In that moment, the Dothraki prove right the words of Robert Baratheon so many years back about “only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field.” They charge with mad abandon and tear into the Lannister forces. Maybe the battle would have been a draw, but for the presence of Drogon burning gaps in their lines with dragonfire. She tears at the train with precision, burning the Lannisters’ gains and throwing their defense into chaos and confusion. Even Jaime’s vain attempt to have his archers bring Dany down fail. So he sets Bronn to unleashing Qyburn’s scorpion on Drogon…and it works. Sort of.

The sellsword manages to wound the mighty beast to the ground, forcing Dany to dismount and try to dislodge the bolt from her most powerful weapon. Jaime sees an opportunity to strike down the Dragon Queen but as her dragon turns to incinerate him, Bronn saves him from the fire. Both sink into a nearby body of water, unsure of their fates or that of their men. Daenerys remains alive as does Drogon — though what, if anything, that scorpion bolt might do to him remains to be seen.

GOT - Jaime leadsMuch has been paid by these characters to still be alive and still be active in this game of thrones they’re playing. All have been lucky in one way or another. Even so, they carry the wounds and the lessons side by side as they barrel towards the climax. Standing in the distance of the battle, Tyrion Lannister could see his older brother charging at his Queen. The brother he loves and that loves him trying to kill the woman who has found a place of respect and honor for him. Perhaps that is the last lesson these characters will learn — veterans though they are of all the hard lessons these wars have given them. At some point, everyone will have to choose which side they are on and recognize that not everyone will make it out alive. The time for shared allegiances is coming to an end.

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Game of Thrones: Authority & “The Queen’s Justice”

By what right does someone rule? What gives someone the power to decide life and death over others? Several ideas were put forth in this latest episode of “Game of Thrones” over what gives a particular person authority to do what they seek to do. Whether that is to rule, to lead, to defend, to save or to kill, everyone has a particular reason that they believe gives them the right, if not the ability, to act. We all may think we have the answer to someone’s problem, but that does not mean we have such authority. Not that this has ever stopped some of the characters in Westeros.  

For Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, her authority is drawn from her family heritage as the conquerors of the Seven Kingdoms. Her ancestor, Aegon, flew on a dragon and took six of the Seven Kingdoms in his war and then forged his throne out of the swords of his conquered foes. She’s the heir to him and to the Targaryen dynasty that ruled the Seven Kingdoms through periods of conflict as well as periods of peace. More importantly, the army that follows her does so out of loyalty, not fear. She freed the Unsullied and they fight for her. She put her trust in Missandei and Tyrion and they counsel her truly. She gave birth to dragons and they obey her. Denying her authority is denying the power she wields and the heritage she carries.

However, for Jon Snow, the King in the North, it is not enough. He did not want to be in charge but he has constantly been elected to do so. He was chosen by the Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch to be Lord Commander.  Then, he was chosen by the lords of the North to be their King. His authority is drawn from being elected by others to his position and not inheritance. As a bastard, he was meant to inherit nothing. But his qualities and his abilities have outshone his status and made him ruler. It’s why the wildlings have come to trust him. It’s why the Northern lords chose him despite aligning himself with widlings, their ancient enemy. His authority is drawn from the trust bestowed upon him by the entire North.

So when these two people come face to face at long last, it shouldn’t be a surprise that neither sees in the other someone to follow. Dany is looking at a potential traitor. Jon is looking at a potential jailer. Having their weapons and boat taken, Jon, Davos and his entourage are now trapped on Dragonstone at the Dragon Queen’s pleasure. Jon is there to try and convince her to side with him in the fight against the White Walkers — a task admittedly difficult given their legendary status. Meanwhile Dany is hearing talk of distant and fantastical threats while her very real and very near enemy — Cersei Lannister — is turning her setbacks into triumphs. It takes the work of Tyrion Lannister, the only one who knows them well enough to see they can help one another, to bridge the gap and help convince Dany to give Jon permission to mine the dragonglass he desperately covets. Maybe out of that can come the start of an alliance.

While Jon ponders his situation, back in Winterfell, Sansa is using her knowledge of the North as a source of authority over the people around her. Yes, she is a Stark, but she’s thinking like a leader. She counsels Lord Royce of the Vale that their armor needs leather to ensure the soldiers won’t freeze. She decrees that all the grain for winter will be kept in the Winterfell storehouses — since, when the White Walkers come, it is there that everyone will run for shelter. She is impressing even Littlefinger with her capacity for decision-making and command. As well she should since she knows what Winterfell is and how the Northerners think. Which is why she thinks Bran will be taking over when he shows up at the gates of Winterfell.

The Stark siblings, long thought lost to one another, bond over their journeys and travails. But Bran explains that he cannot be Lord of Winterfell or anything like his parents or he may have wanted him to be before his journey north of The Wall. His mission is greater now and he gives Sansa a small demonstration of his power by detailing her demeanor the night of her wedding to Ramsay Bolton. For Bran, his authority is drawn from his abilities to see things and know things like no one else in the Seven Kingdoms. But he’s not interested in using it to lead or rule. He, like Jon, knows what is really coming.

Someone else who knows that truth is Samwell Tarly, currently in The Citadel at Oldtown. Sam has never been one to wield authority. If anything, he’s been the antithesis of it, bullied and scared by everyone around him. However, when duty has called, Sam has managed to rise to the occasion time and again. And when Ser Jorah Mormont was dying of greyscale and he knew of a possible cure, Sam’s sense of duty gave him all the authority he needed to try the procedure despite the direct commands of Archmaester Ebrose that he not do so. Sam did it and cured Jorah of his greyscale following the direct instructions he had found. Archmaester Ebrose had no recourse but to excuse the knight, commend Sam for his work and then set him on another thankless task. His reward for his triumph is not being expelled by the Order for disobeying orders.

Disobeying the men of power is how Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell rose to power. For the former paramour of Prince Oberyn Martell, she took her need for revenge and that of his daughters, the Sand Snakes, as a clarion call to rebel against the inaction of Prince Doran Martell of Dorne. Ellaria staged a coup where she killed him, the Sand Snakes killed their cousin and she took vengeance for Oberyn’s death by poisoning Princess Myrcella Baratheon, the nearest Lannister to her.  For her part, Lady Olenna had taken the death of her son and grandchildren to heart and used her need for revenge to take House Tyrell and the Reach into war against the Iron Throne. United in purpose, they had thrown their lot against Cersei Lannister.

But Cersei knows all too well that authority is drawn from power. It’s a lesson she learned from her father — the most ruthless and cunning man in Westeros — and from her husband — wh

o took the Iron Throne from the Targaryens. Cersei has learned that it doesn’t matter what the laws say or duty demands. Family, knowledge, justice, trust. These are mere words to her. Power is power, she once said. As Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she has the authority to do as she pleases and no one can say a thing. So if she wants to fuck her brother, Ser Jaime, she’ll do so and no one will bat an eye. If she wants to force Ellaria Sand to watch her last living daughter to die from the same poison Myrcella died from, she’ll chain both and order that the torches never go out so Ellaria can see it happen.

Cersei even entertains the Iron Bank’s envoy, promising that the Iron Throne’s many debts to them will be paid in full within two weeks. How can she be so confident when so many are rebelling against her? That’s because despite Dany’s Unsullied taking Casterly Rock, their ancient seat of power, away from them, Jaime and Cersei had set a two-pronged trapped for the Dragon Queen and her forces. On one hand, they used Euron Greyjoy’s Iron Fleet to burn the ships that had ferried the Unsullied to the Rock, trapping them on the wrong end of Westeros. On the other, Jaime took the bulk of the Lannister army and conquered Highgarden, House Tyrell’s stronghold. In so doing, he removes another ally of Dany’s away.

It falls to Jaime then to see to the death of Lady Olenna. And while his sister sought all manners of angry retribution, Jaime convinced her to simply poison her and let her die. Olenna takes this momentary lapse of mercy from the Kingslayer to reveal herself as the architect of Joffrey’s death at his wedding. Certain she’ll escape their wrath, she revels in the moment, detailing the gruesome manner in which Joffrey perished. Then she dies and, with her, House Tyrell dies. All her scheming and plotting, all her and Margaery’s maneuvers for power, die at that moment having done nothing but ensured that a monster sits the Iron Throne. Her biggest move was to kill one possible monster for the love she bore her granddaughter. Thanks to that, one far worse ascended into power and took all she held dear from her.

The idea that one can gain the authority to rule, to command, to lead is a fanciful one. It is one that is often carried only by those who live above a certain sphere in their world. Most of the characters in the world of ice and fire carry no fancy notions of being in charge of an army or of commanding the loyalty of the crowds or of sitting on a throne to rule a nation. The problem becomes when one thinks that this is preordained or incapable of changing. In the six seasons of Game of Thrones, we have seen four people sit the Iron Throne of Westeros, five different Hands of the King/Queen and countless other rulers of various lands and masters of mighty cities deposed. We have also witnessed the end of five of the major houses in Westeros: Baratheon, Bolton, Martell, Frey and Tyrell. Those that are left are weak or finding their own feet after a long and arduous journey. Authority is meaningless without the ability to use it for something. Each of the players in the game of thrones has thought that they were moving towards triumph but most of them have been cast aside into nothingness. 

Ser Davos Seaworth entreats Daenerys that, without uniting their forces, it won’t matter whose skeleton finally manages to win the game and sits the Iron Throne. For the final players that remain, that may end up being the final lesson: when to concede that you do not have the power, the authority, to destroy it all for the sake of beating your enemy. Interestingly, only one man has come face to face with that reality; only one man has had to see a ruler so set in denying his foes a victory that he decided to destroy it all and kill thousands: Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. In the moment the Mad King decided to burn all of King’s Landing with wildfire, Jaime decided that Aerys no longer had the authority to rule.

What will he do if he finds himself in a similar spot again?

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“Dunkirk” Review: Survival is Victory

Dunkirk-poster-2349857-600x875It is May 1940. World War II has been raging for less than a full year so far. Nazi Germany had already taken Poland and the British Expeditionary Force along with the Belgian and French armies were busy trying to stop them. When the Germans began their invasion of France and Belgium, they went through the Ardennes Forest and split the Allies into two while also bypassing the positions of the Maginot Line that France had spent years reinforcing. Such was the speed and precision of the Germans that the Allies were forced to slowly retreat back towards the English Channel. This was going to leave them surrounded on all sides by enemy forces. General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, the man leading the BEF, realized that the only way to escape the Nazis was for his forces to be evacuated back to Great Britain. The nearest location that was capable of removing his men? The port of Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan goes for a smaller, less verbose introduction to his adaptation of the Dunkirk Evacuation. But the gist remains: there are thousands of British and French soldiers trapped against the English Channel who are desperate to get away from the enemy approach. The expected Nazi invasion of the British Isles — what would become the Battle of Britain — has made Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Parliament reticent in putting more ships and planes than necessary at risk. This means the Luftwaffe owns the skies against a small force of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters who patrol and try to give cover to the ships trying to escape Dunkirk. In order to accelerate the rescue, the Royal Navy sent out an order requisitioning every small vessel available in the south of England — from pleasure boat to ferry —  to head to Dunkirk and assist. Given the shortage of manpower, many of these vessels were crewed by their own civilian staffs, who were asked to head into an active war zone with little time and no means of defending themselves. In the meantime, the soldiers across the Channel had no choice but to wait and wait and hope that they would be rescued.

Dunkirk splits the story into three equally-important elements, each of which take a different length of time. First, there’s the men on the beach at Dunkirk. They’re represented by Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles amongst others. These are soldiers led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy) who are desperately trying to find any way off the beach and across to England. Their story covers the span of a week. Second, there’s the civilian rescue flotilla AKA “The Little Ships of Dunkirk.” They’re represented by Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan. A dad, his son and his best friend, all locals who opt to take their requisitioned boat and head towards Dunkirk to assist. Their story takes course over a day. Finally, there’s the RAF flying above and trying to give the ships a chance by stopping the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs. They’re represented by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden. Their story is but one hour.dunkirk-teaser-art

You’ll notice that I have not really mentioned names or characters for most of the actors listed above. That’s by design. Whitehead may be named “Tommy” in the movie, but it’s rarely used and secondary to proceedings. He’s the soldier we follow from the movie’s start as he seeks any way — some more underhanded than others — to get out of Dunkirk. Teaming up with other soldiers, like Barnard’s Gibson and Styles’ Alex, his desperation is punctured by the absence of food, the absence of sound but the wind and the waves at the beach and the absence of dialogue. All these men have one desperate mission: to survive. And he alongside Bonnard, Barnard and the rest are able to be great stand-ins for the men who all they wanted was to live. Sometimes their story becomes hilarious in a dark comedy sort-of-way — they try to find any way off the beach only for it to fail spectacularly. They then have to dust themselves off and try again.

We get to know Mr. Dawson, his son, Peter, and his son’s best friend, George, a bit better. They’re the civilians who choose to take their boat into Dunkirk. Peter and George are on the cusp of manhood, worrying about what mark, if any, they’ll leave on the world. For his part, Mr. Dawson is someone who has served in his time and knows the dangers the boys in Dunkirk face. Along the way they’ll find a marooned soldier (Cillian Murphy) who needs rescue. Their part of the story focuses on the heroism of the civilians who braved the treacherous waters of the Channel as well as the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs and the U-boats patrolling beneath. All four do a good job of juxtaposing their mission against the larger issues at play — why do some run into burning buildings while everyone else is running away?

Finally, there’s Hardy’s Farrier and Lowden’s Collins; the two RAF pilots who patrol the skies above the Channel and try desperately to give the flotilla a fighting chance. Their single hour of combat is focused on finding the Luftwaffe while not running out of fuel. It’s interesting to see Hardy and Lowden have to act with only half their faces visible for the bulk of the movie. They do rather well and manage to represent the heroism of the out-manned pilots fighting in the air. At what point do they turn back for home and leave the stranded men to their fate? Or do they risk their chance to be back home themselves by sacrificing every ounce of fuel to give the ships a fighting chance?

Dunkirk - RAFFor a movie that’s very involved, having a large cast of actors of various levels of fame, that is supposed to take place across three different time periods, it is surprising that it is quite straightforward and simple. Nolan is very direct and clean in his shots, establishing both the geography and the stakes for these men. He engages in very few tricks and allows the lighting, the cinematography and the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting in those moments where tension is ramped up. In one instance, Tommy, Alex and Gibson have finally gotten aboard a destroyer headed for England. They’re passing the time drinking tea and eating bread with jam. Until one of them hears something streaking in the distance, the fog lights come on and a torpedo is sighted. In these moments, the work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith really comes through in building, keeping and not releasing the tension of the moment.

And tension is something that Dunkirk has in spades. These are men fraying after a week of shelling, shooting and desperation. By cutting the three separate story-lines and presenting them one mixed with the other, we are allowed to see similar moments from different angles and know what each person is going through. The desperation of the men trying to escape is combined with the tense rush of the pilots trying to give them a fighting chance mixed with the flotilla’s crews rushing to render aid even as they know they’re out-manned. We might see someone swimming in one moment and then the movie will go back to moments before that person was in the water, showing us how he ended up there. While at first, it was a tad disorienting, you find that you adapt and come to understand why Nolan cut his movie the way he did.   

Writing an entire movie for the first time since 2010’s Inception, it is interesting to focus on what Nolan is after and what he is not. This is not a traditional war movie as we know them. There is no sequence like Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy Beach assault here. In fact, but for a few out-of-focus figures at the end, you see no German soldiers whatsoever in Dunkirk. Their presence is limited to fighter planes and bombers over the English Channel that Farrier and Collins have to shoot down and off-screen shooters taking aim at the English and French soldiers barricaded in the port city. They exist as a threat as existential and present as the vacuum of space in Interstellar — they’re there and they’re a threat that never goes away, but the greater threat is within.Dunkirk - Soldiers 2

Because the more immediate danger for the soldiers in Dunkirk is to lose hope. And you see it. By the time the movie is rolling, the men of the beach have begun to lose hope they will be rescued. They begin to come up with whatever scheme can get them away. Some turn on one another and start accusing each other of being German spies. Others, once rescued, refuse to go back to help or are angry when comrades who appeared to be leaving are forced back by the Luftwaffe.  With food and water growing scarce, with no sight of ships to take them away, morale sinks, discipline falters and an army can quickly devolve into an angry mob. It is surprising how much the actors on the beach do with very little dialogue.  It’s as if the very act of talking would zap whatever tiny hope they had remaining. The leadership of Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant can only do so much in stemming that tide.

At its core, Dunkirk is a study of men under the greatest of stress and how they respond to it. As you can imagine, not everyone rises to the challenge. But many do. Many keep faith and keep hope. They are helped by those who rise to aid them — the pilots above them and the sailors headed towards them.  But those two groups are also forced to come to terms with their own limitations and own willingness to sacrifice themselves. Are they willing to lay their own lives on the line to save men they do not know? For some, the sacrifice is worthwhile. For others, it may not be. It is this struggle within each and every character that fuels the conflict in Dunkirk.

When the expected disaster at Dunkirk turned into a miracle, Churchill was forced to calm the English people’s triumph by reminding them that the war was not over and that Dunkirk had been not been a victory. Churchill had to follow by proclaiming they would defend the British Isles “on the beaches” and “on the hills” and that they “would never surrender.” In many ways, the spirit of the Dunkirk Evacuation permeated throughout all of England and allowed them to stand while the Battle of Britain raged above them. For his part, Hitler and the Nazi High Command considered Dunkirk a triumph that would ensure the British would never set foot again on European soil.

Dunkirk - FlotillaDunkirk is a war movie where the victory is much more internal than it is external. The battle is one for the spirit of people pushed to the ultimate brink of despair. War dehumanizes people. This is obvious. But we expect that to happen only when bombs and bullets are being fired. However, Dunkirk shows that, in war, even the silence can be treacherous and that stillness can be a mask covering desperation and anguish.  In that, it ensures it will remain relevant for years to come.

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Game of Thrones: Schemers & “Stormborn”

GOT - VarysAs this tale of kings, queens, ice demons and fire dragons begins to ramp up towards its inevitable climax, it is becoming harder for the natural schemers and plotters to keep their hidden hands out of sight. That should not be a surprise. For six seasons, a number of protagonists have been able to glide through the traps and the dangers by being more astute than others or by aligning themselves with the right player to achieve what they wanted. But the time is approaching for cards to be put on the table in this game — and some of these players are going to find all their plotting and scheming was for nothing.

Among the best players has been Varys, Master of Whisperers and Spymaster to the three of the last five kings to sit the Iron Throne. For years, he has been scheming to place someone other than Robert Baratheon in charge of the Seven Kingdoms. First, it was Viserys Targaryen, the last son of the Mad King Aerys. Then, when he died, it became Daenarys Targaryen, his sister. But he also worked in conjuction with Robert’s small council to send spies and assassins after Dany — facts which Dany called him out for at long last. Varys was obsequious to Robert yet worked to overthrow him. Varys deferred to Joffrey and was still plotting his downfall. How can Dany trust him to not do the same to her? Dany’s solution: put Varys’ track record on the table and convince him that he’s better served by expressing that Dany is coming up short. Varys agrees to do this while also understanding that he will be burned by Dany should he scheme against her.

Not soon is she done coming to peace with Varys that another of our schemers arrives in Dragonstone. Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, somehow found her way back to the same island where we first met her.  Back then she had teamed up with Stannis Baratheon and proclaimed him the hero that would defeat the forces of darkness. However, Stannis and his entire House fell in following Melisandre’s path. She then tied herself to the potential in Jon Snow until the new King in the North banished her for burning the former Princess Shireen alive. Her new quest is to convince Dany that she is the princess that was promised, the hero that will stop the coming Army of the Dead. Dany doesn’t know whether to believe her or not, but agrees to send for Jon to come to Dragonstone — to tell her of it and to swear fealty to her as the true Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

For his part, Jon knows that he has to go to Dragonstone to convince her to unite her forces with his in order to stop the Army of the Dead. She has large armies, sits atop a mountain of dragonglass and has three dragons who could turn the tide against the White Walkers. But the specter of past Northern lords answering calls from monarchs in the South looms like a shadow over such a decision. Jon is not a schemer and he has never been one. He has been at the mercy of the plans of others — whether Ned’s, Jeor’s, Qhorin’s, the Night’s Watch or now the lords of the North. His plan of action is to do as his father would have done and seek the aid of Daenerys Stormborn. In his stead, he leaves his half-sister, Sansa, in charge of the North. And Sansa has been taking lessons on plotting from Littlefinger. What happens when, or if, Jon returns?

GOT - Baelish & Jon

Before leaving though, Jon finally encounters the other master schemer of the Seven Kingdoms, Littlefinger. Lord Baelish is right to demand some appreciation from the new King in the North as it was his knights of the Vale who helped turned the battle he was on the verge of losing to his side. Given all Sansa has told him though, Jon does not trust Petyr Baelish and the idea that he has designs on her is not something he’s willing to tolerate. So he accosts him and threatens him before riding out to Dragonstone. In that act, Jon may have set the boundaries of his relationship with the Lord Protector of the Vale and made a mighty new enemy.

But if Jon has never been a schemer, his other half-sister has had to become one. Trained by the Faceless Men, Arya has plotted death and ruin for those who wronged her family and her quest is taking her towards King’s Landing and Queen Cersei. So it is with a bit of irony that her plan is foiled by the unlikeliest of persons — Hot Pie. The former companion who once threatened her to try and take her sword away and with whom she spent a long time escaping the War of the Five Kings informs her that the North is won and in the hands of her family once again. Her entire plot of vengeance falls apart at that news. Instead of heading towards her target, she turns back and starts heading towards her family and her home — which she thought she would never see again. Along the way, she encounters her former direwolf pup, Nymeria, now fully grown and in charge of her own pack of wild wolves. At first startled, Arya manages to calm the massive beast and tries to talk her into coming back to Winterfell with her. But just as Arya is not the little lady her parents wanted, neither is Nymeria the faithful companion she thought she would be.  Their lives and their chance for friendship have been taken from both of them by the plots of others.

You could draw a parallel line between her life and that of Grey Worm and Missandei; though they have never met. Just as Arya was taken from her old life by the schemes of others, so were the General of the Unsullied and the Lady to the Dragon Queen. One was taught languages because her value would increase as a slave interpreter while the other was castrated and taught to fight because it would make him a better soldier. Until Dany came along, they did not have control over their lives. Now, however, they do. And as Dany plans to move her own army against Casterly Rock, the ancient seat of House Lannister, it means they will be separated — maybe forever. This gives them only the night to finally profess what has been obvious between them. If their lives remain in the hands of powerful people above them, they can at least control who they fall in love with and who they sleep with — missing body parts be damned.

GOT - Sam & JorahAnother one who was like them — at the mercy of a schemer — was Jorah Mormont. The former Lord of Bear Island once worked for Varys the Spider and spied on Dany and Viserys Targaryen. But for the infatuation and respect he grew to have for Dany, he abandoned those plans. Now, he’s stuck in Oldtown, desperately seeking a cure for greyscale that may not exist. Or rather won’t be used by anyone but Samwell Tarly. It’s not that Tarly is trained. It’s that, in their “wisdom”, the Archmaesters refuse to use the one method they know that might work to cure greyscale on adults. But for the respect Sam had for the Old Bear, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, Sam is willing to try it on Jorah. In 6 seasons, we have seen the meek, mild and scared Sam be willing to risk so much for love, for duty and for respect. He’s snuck Gilly past The Wall. He’s helped elect Jon as Lord Commander. He’s now likely saved Jorah’s life. How will this affect his standing with the Maesters of the Citadel though? They are not likely to appreciate him plotting behind their backs.

But if characters like Sam, Jon, Dany, Arya, Missandei, Sansa and Grey Worm have been at the mercy of the schemers, it should never be implied that they can stand above the fray or avoid disaster. Dany’s war plan was to send the Unsullied against Casterly Rock while the armies of the Reach and Dorne, ferried by the Ironborn, would lay siege to King’s Landing. There’s reason in that: a siege by the Unsullied or the Dothraki would make Dany a foreign invader, looking to topple the ways of Westeros. But a siege by armies from Westeros against the proclaimed Queen of the Seven Kingdoms would not only show Dany has support from the Seven Kingdoms but that Cersei does not. It would pull away from Cersei’s support even further.

To that end, Cersei marshalls many of The Reach’s lords, including Randyll Tarly, Sam’s father to King’s Landing. She is also looking to pull away the support underneath the Queen of Thorns’ feet and deprive Dany of so many warriors and lords. The gambit may or may not have paid off as, despite her scheming, Lord Randyll is not one unable to see past the games. It takes Jamie and an unexpected offer to become the Warden of the South — the new lords paramount of the Reach in effect — to make Lord Randyll pause to consider. But even he knows that there’s dragons at play. Cersei, who has used Qyburn’s skills and talents before, turns to the unchained former maester for help and he comes up with a ballista capable of killing a dragon he feels. If their plans work, that would undo Dany’s superiority on the battlefield and may turn the tide against them.

GOT - Euron & YaraCersei’s plans get an unexpected boost when the Iron Fleet led by Euron Greyjoy surprises Yara’s Ironborn at high sea returning to Dorne. The pirate king of the Iron Islands knows how to sneak up on enemies and how to take targets. Waiting until the seas and the night were on his side, he catches Yara, Theon and the Sands unawares. In a dance of blood, his pirates slaughter both the Ironborn and the Dornish — Euron personally killing two of the Sand Snakes and having his men take the youngest and her mother captive. His grand scheme now revealed to make them a gift to Cersei given that Ellaria was the one who poisoned and murdered Princess Myrcella. It would give Cersei the opportunity to exact great vengeance on Ellaria to her heart’s content. In the process, Euron also decapitates the rebel Yara and her Ironborn forces.

In the final moments of the battle, Euron confronts Theon, who had until that point been fighting valiantly. Holding Yara at axe point, he dares his nephew to come take her from him. In that moment, Theon’s promise to fight for Yara comes face to face with the horrors he faced at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. Euron’s men proceed to mutilate the fallen warriors around them while, in his eyes, Theon sees the same madness and lust that made Ramsay so vile. In that moment, Theon is reduced to Reek once again and he opts to flee from Euron by jumping overboard — abandoning his sister to this monster.

For a brief moment long ago, Theon thought he could play the game of thrones. He schemed to take Winterfell from the Starks and declared himself its prince. He murdered children in order to drive the point home. That act cost him dearly personally as the wounds he suffered at a man more depraved and callous than he continue to break his will. This is the danger for the commoners and for the noble born, the powerless and the powerful. In their world, there’s men and women capable of manipulating them, using them and then leaving them hollow, used and destroyed. Tywin did it to his children. The Slave Masters did it to Grey Worm and Missandei. Ramsay did it to Theon. This is the way of the Old World. The one Dany is claiming to want to break. But even the Mother of Dragons may find its wounds too deep to solve.

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Game of Thrones: The End of the World & “Dragonstone”

GOT - Arya 2Welcome back, one and all. Welcome back to the lands of ice and fire. Welcome back to Westeros (and only Westeros this time). The wait ended and the tale — now only 12 episodes left — began to spin towards its conclusion. Whatever happens from here on out is the climax and the end of things. Though it felt like we might never get here, the time is getting closer to the end of this tale and its various characters. For some, it’s the end of their lives. For others, it’s the end of their ambitions.  And depending on what happens at The Wall, it may come to be the end of everything for all.

When last season ended, we saw Arya Stark take her revenge upon the man who carried out the Red Wedding — Lord Walder of House Frey — and on his two immediate heirs.  But that was not enough for the assassin trained by the Faceless Men. Donning the disguise of the old lecher, Arya called for another feast for the rest of the Freys in line of succession. With a toast featuring the best wine, Arya poisons and destroys House Frey in absolute effect. She rips the Riverlands away from the men who butchered her sister-in-law, slit her mother’s throat and disfigured her brother’s corpse and ends House Frey for good for having betrayed guest right and for having taken her family away from her. Her warning to Lord Walder’s widow that “Winter came for House Frey” sure to echo into the tales and songs as sure as Lord Tywin’s destruction of House Reyne turned into “The Rains of Castamere.”

But that is not all Arya is after. For years she has repeated a list of names to herself as a mantra or as a prayer. A list of targets of men and women who have wronged or attacked House Stark’s members. The Hound, Polliver, Rorge, Ilyn Payne, Meryn Trant, Melisandre, Thoros of Myr, Beric Dondarrion, The Mountain, Walder Frey, Tywin Lannister, Joffrey, Cersei Lannister. Some like Meryn Trant, Polliver and Walder Frey, she has already killed. Others like Tywin Lannister and Joffrey have escaped her vengeance by dying at the hands of others. And one, The Hound, she forgave. But her heart burns to kill Cersei Lannister and it is towards her she heads after leaving The Twins. She runs into a band of Lannister guards trying to keep some semblance of peace and shares a meal and drink. They laugh at her bold claim, thinking it a joke. Will they be so eager to break bread and share the road with someone who can carry out this claim and throw Westeros into even greater chaos.

GOT - Cersei & JaimeFor her part, Queen Cersei is hard at work trying to devise a plan to stop the various factions aligned against her. Mad though she may be, she is not wrong to count the Sand Snakes and the Queen of Thorns, the new King in the North or the suddenly-returned Queen Daenerys among her enemies. Her brother, Ser Jaime, is quick to point out that they’ve no allies anywhere in the realm left to side with that can make a difference. In that, though, he’s surprised by the arrival of Euron Greyjoy, King of the Iron Islands and the Iron Fleet.  Though Cersei had counted him amongst her enemies, Euron is rather eager to forge an alliance through marriage with Cersei. The Lannister siblings are quick to point out how untrustworthy a pirate he is. He promises to return with a gift worthy of his claim as proof of his trust. What kind of gift could he be thinking of? The head of an enemy? The head of a dragon? A prisoner of value? Whatever it is, for Cersei, it costs her nothing. Should he fail, it has removed a rival. Should he succeed, he might tip the balance of things.

As for the rival to the North, King Jon Snow is finding the difficulties of managing both a large kingdom of Northerners and his own House complex. There is truth in the words Sansa states: “Reward those loyal and punish those who betrayed.” It’s the way it is done amongst the powerful of Westeros. Jon rejects that, however, and instead chooses to put the blame for the betrayal of the Umbers and Karstarks on the men who died fighting him at the Battle of the Bastards. He does this for two reasons. First, because he truly believes it is wrong to cast out innocent children and family out of their ancestral homes for crimes they did not commit. Second, because with the approaching march of the White Walkers, Last Hearth (Umbers) and Karhold (Karstarks) will be the first major castles to be in their path. To shore up the defenses, Jon sends Tormund and his wildlings to Eastwatch by the Sea, the eastern castle at the edge of The Wall.

GOT - Jon & SansaBut this reveals the differences in the lessons Jon and Sansa have learned over the course of the story. For Jon, loyalty and being forthright with those who stand beside you are central tenets of his style of leadership. That’s what he learned from Ned Stark and Jeor Mormont, from Qhorin Halfhand, Mance Rayder and Alliser Thorne. For Sansa, it is vital to show your strength and to reward those who stick by your side; thus ensuring their loyalty to you.  That’s what she learned from Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger. These are different tutors that passed on different messages to erstwhile pupils. After all, neither Jon nor Sansa expected to have leadership over the North fall to them. That was meant to be Robb’s role. Sansa was to have wed some lord or prince while Jon was meant to inherit nothing and have to seek his fortunes far away.  But the end of Ned and of Robb has forced Jon and Sansa to have to seize power for their house’s sake as well as the North’s in order to unite it all against the White Walkers. Not that it will prove easy; not with Littlefinger still about Winterfell and trying to drive a wedge between the wolves.

Tormund is not the only one headed towards Eastwatch by the Sea. The Brotherhood Without Banners appears set on a course there also, guided by the visions in the flames from Thoros of Myr. In their midst rides Sandor Clegane, The Hound. Having agreed to ride with them after they let him deliver justice to some renegade members, Sandor comes face to face with some of the consequences of his earlier actions. A year before, while riding with Arya, he had stabbed a man and robbed him and his daughter of the little silver they had stashed away. Now, he got to see first hand what his actions had wrought. The man and his daughter, starving and with no means of obtaining food, had chosen suicide over starvation. Afraid of that truth, Sandor had wanted to move on. However, with no way to avoid it, he instead chose to dig the freezing earth in order to give both a proper burial. For that man and his child, their end came when The Hound met them. The Hound’s end came when he was left to die by Arya. For the new Sandor is capable of feeling guilt and regret. How would he do if he were to encounter his former charge now? Or her sister, Sansa? And how will those new emotions affect Sandor as he rides into certain battle against the White Walkers?

GOT - Samwell

It is the quest for an edge against the demons of ice which prompted Samwell Tarly to travel south and join the order of maesters in Oldtown. The hope was that, somewhere in the vast halls of knowledge the maesters kept, a way of defeating the Walkers could be found. However, Sam is finding that his life is instead one of dull routine; cleaning after the many patients, feeding the students and the maesters, tending to the chamber pots and the sick. All the while, he’s studying anatomy under Archmaester Marwyn and growing frustrated about his lack of access to the ancient tomes. Marwyn explains to Sam that, for the order of maesters, the threat of the White Walkers is not some greater threat than any other faced before. Sure, they came before, but that’s why there’s The Wall. Winters come and go. Kings rise and fall. Houses are born and then fade away. It is the cyclical nature of things. There is always an end to something, but not THE end. Not the end of everything. Because everything cannot end.

Sam is not trustful of this though. He’s seen the White Walkers. He’s killed one of them. He fears that The Wall won’t be enough this time. So he takes a maester’s keys and breaks into the restricted section in order to obtain the knowledge he seeks. And in one tome he finds it: a mountain of obsidian that is on Westeros and can be used to make all the weapons they need to fight the walkers. The mountain is located on the island of Dragonstone. He decides to send that message to Jon, hoping he can do something with it. The only problem for Jon Snow is that Dragonstone has a new owner: Daenerys Stormborn. The Targaryen queen has returned to the place of her birth and, at long last, touches Westerosi soil.  And though she has grander designs and her Hand, Tyrion, was friendly with Jon, it’s unlikely she’ll just let the King in the North take her mountain of dragonglass freely.

GOT - DanySo this is where the story picks up: with chaos throughout the land, two kings and two queens each vying for power, others seeking other goals and winter finally at hand. The questions though abound. What will Daenerys do when she hears Jorah Mormont is at Oldtown in the care of the maesters for his greyscale? What will Jon and Sansa do when Lord Commander Edd Tollett sends them a raven saying Bran is at Castle Black with news of the impending attack? What will the Seven Kingdoms do when they find out that the White Walkers are real and are marching towards them?

It all feels like the end of the world until it stops. But with warfare, hunger, freezing cold and who knows what else around the corner, maybe this is the time it does not stop. Maybe this is the time winter comes and stays for good. Maybe this is really THE end.

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Arsenal Season Review: We Never Left the Shoney’s!

AFC - FA CupI was all set to put this out before the FA Cup Final. Then the Final happened and I got caught with all the celebrating. So I figured I’d take a step back, finish other pieces, then come back and look at this with fresh eyes.  After all, the glow of another trophy can make the pain of the season feel smaller.  So, with several weeks of distance, how do we grade the 2016-17 season? Well, it was like being stuck in the Shoney’s of Rick Sanchez’s mind — we think we’re making progress towards our long-sought goal, only to find in the last moment that he tricked us and we never left the Shoney’s.

The sad fact is that it started out that way, got better then horribly worse and when it couldn’t get worse, it got better. But not better enough to save the season.

Perhaps it was only fitting that missing on a Top 4 finish came down to needing Liverpool to drop points as our campaign started with losing 4-3 to them in the opener.  A result of another summer of incomplete transfer business saw a crisis at CB and a starting central defensive pairing of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding which Liverpool’s zippy forwards challenged and harried all match long. Both young English defenders had better days as the season went along but their inexperience showed. That the 4th place trophy came down to these two teams should have been obvious that August day — for all their talents, both teams were woefully short in key areas, which would stop them short of truly challenging for the Premier League crown.

Interestingly, after that loss to Liverpool, Arsenal went on a 19-game unbeaten run across three competitions. And yes, I’ll grant you that included 5 draws against everyone from Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League to Tottenham, Manchester United and Middlesbrough in the Premier League. Plus, if we’re being honest, the performances against Spurs and United were not the most imperious. Some might even suggest that Arsenal escaped those matches with something for their troubles. And while such actions are often lauded in champions, when you combine it with the poor outings elsewhere, it dulls the shine of some of the other fixtures. (Remember needing a last minute goal to win against Burnley which had claims of being both a handball and offsides?)

AFC - Palace.jpg

There were pockets of instability where a couple of bad results derailed good runs and forced the team to reset itself to find its way again. And then there was that horror run — from the 3-1 loss to Chelsea in the Premier League through the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Crystal Palace — which featured such moments as being trounced 10-2 in aggregate by an average-for-them Bayern Munich in the Champions League and getting played off the park by West freakin’ Bromwich Albion.  Even the advance through a weak FA Cup campaign — thank you, football gods — couldn’t salve the wounds that Arsenal kept picking up as the year trundled on.

Now some would look at the table and say that Arsenal were right on course for finishing right where they normally do. After all, 75 points is a 4-point-improvement on last year’s 71 and that was good enough for 2nd place.  Except that this undercuts how the league fluctuates.  Five years ago, Arsenal finished 4th with a points total of 73; 5 points behind Manchester City in 2nd place — but 16 points behind champions Manchester United. This year, Arsenal finished 1 point behind 4th-placed Liverpool but 18 points behind Chelsea.  In fact, in the last 5 seasons, the closest Arsenal have been is the 2013-14 season when they finished 7 points behind Manchester City’s title-winning side — the same year they kept going away to big teams and getting beat big.

At least this year, the losses to the other big clubs weren’t by large margins. That said, it was still a negative 2-3-5 overall against Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United — with wins against Chelsea before they turned their season around and an United side that had both eyes fixed on the Europa League Final the only two triumphs. It hardly speaks of an ability to challenge for the top and that’s exactly what Arsenal did not do.

The larger point, however, is that Arsenal performed much in the same way they have the last few years. 73, 79, 75, 71 and 75 are not the digits to someone’s safe combination. They’re the point totals for the last 5 seasons for Arsenal in the Premier League.  And if you think that somehow this is something to dismiss, take a look at their records for those last five seasons:

Season Record Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Total Points Final Position
2016-17     23-6-9 77 44 +33 75 5th
2015-16 20-11-7 65 36 +29 71 2nd
2014-15 22-9-7 71 36 +35 75 3rd
2013-14 24-7-7 68 41 +27 79 4th
2012-13 21-10-7 72 37 +35 73 4th

In effect, Arsenal have been living in a Groundhog Day situation. Why is that?

Of the squad that we have now, 13 players remain from 5 years ago. Among them are key contributors like Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nacho Monreal, Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott. And they scored — Giroud had 16 goals overall (12 in the league) while Walcott added 19 goals ( in the league) — or assisted — Ox providing 11 assists overall — or provided stability at the back — Koscielny starting 43 of our games while Monreal started 41 across all competitions. In truth though, this season has been defined by one man above all: Alexis Sanchez.

AFC - Alexis30 goals with 24 in the league. 15 assists. 46 games started. 100 fouls suffered. 61 fouls committed. In fact, the only statistical categories Alexis Sanchez didn’t lead Arsenal this season are in yellow cards (he comes in 3rd behind Mustafi and Xhaka) and red cards and substitute appearances.  For all our talented players and style of play, the way of Arsenal’s season rose and fell according to the ability of the Chilean to influence things. Starting the season as the de facto center forward allowed him to begin scoring goals for fun. He racked up 12 of his 24 league goals before the turn of the calendar. It’s a pace that would continue throughout the season, even as he was moved off the central striker role for Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck.

How crucial was Alexis this season? Only two other players hit double-digit goals — Giroud had 12 and Walcott had 10. No one else had more than his 10 assists — Ozil followed with 9 and Ox had 7. The dependence on Alexis combined with his dwindling contract has created the perfect storm for fans to freak out over.  Because at its heart, the thought of losing Alexis Sanchez sparks fears of a regression. Particularly when there’s issues elsewhere in the squad. For starters, Mesut Ozil.

I don’t want to pile on Mesut. I think he’s truly a world-class player. Like I said during the season, there’s no way managers from Joachim Low to Jose Mourinho to Arsene Wenger have all raved about him and he’s not the real deal. But a late start due to the Euros didn’t seem to be any issue as he started racking up the goals — against Watford and Chelsea in the Premier League before getting a hat trick in the Champions League as part of the 6-0 destruction of Ludogorets. While he wasn’t providing the assists as before, he seemed to have added a lethality to his attack that resulted in goals.

But his goalscoring dried up as the team began to spin downward — he found the back of the net only 3 more times after December 10th. He still grabbed 8 of his 9 assists after this but for a guy who had just nearly broken the league’s assist record the year prior with 19, to fall to half that mark is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps not surprisingly the furor over his contract situation is nowhere near Alexis’ but that should not deter the club from keeping him long-term. Specially as the new formation seems to have woken him up.

AFC - OzilThe switch to 3 at the back — into a 3-4-2-1 — was borne out of desperation, like so many other moves in years’ past. Following the collapse against Crystal Palace, the nadir of the season mentally and emotionally, something had to change. The switch to a back 3 asked for solidity in defense and sought to limit the issues on midfield and defense the team had been having. And it worked. Of the following 10 fixtures, the Gunners lost only once and conceded 7 goals in total.  (The loss was the North London Derby, mind you).

But what the move at the back did was acknowledge certain facts that were obvious for all to see. The team had a midfield of custard which opponents could harass into turning the ball over with ease. The loss once again of Santi Cazorla deprived the team of its only central midfielder capable of moving the ball from defense to attack. This meant that the balance in the engine of the team was wrong for a second consecutive season. Aaron Ramsey is not another Santi Cazorla. Neither was Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny nor Francis Coquelin. Maybe Jack Wilshere could have filled that role but he was at Bournemouth by his own choosing — a gambit to get the consistent game time that he felt was going to elude him at Emirates Stadium. Things got so bad that Alexis Sanchez was dropping back into midfield to pick up the ball to then try to create an attack; a sense of palpable frustration emanating from the Chilean.

With the 3-at-the-back and two wingbacks on either side, the central partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka seemed to turn into a more capable tandem. Though it took them a while, it seemed that they were asked to do more of what they are best at — Ramsey linked with Ozil and Alexis and had the opportunity for his signature lung-busting runs from midfield into the box while Xhaka patrolled the midfield and had the opportunity to shoot from range. (Hi Ander Herrera!) This also seemed to solve the issue of how to bring the ball forward as that fell to either Nacho or Ox/Hector on either wingback position before finding one of the four guys in the middle to start the attacking move.

AFC - 3-0The new formation also revealed the other major issue in the squad: center forward. In this formation, the ideal striker at the top would be someone like Danny Welbeck, with his pace, power and athleticism. Only problem is that Danny lacks the finishing of Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott. Giroud, for all the criticism he gets, is a more capable striker — only he doesn’t have the pace to stretch defenses and open up space behind him for Alexis, Ozil and Ramsey to run into like Welbeck does. And as for Theo, well, 10 goals is nothing to sneeze at, but his time at CF was a disappointment and with the move to the new system, he found himself a square peg in a round hole.

He wasn’t alone. As players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka and Holding shone in the new formation, we saw less and less of Theo, Elneny, Iwobi and Lucas Perez. Well, Iwobi seemed to have been taken off the line after hitting the same wall that all young, talented players hit at some point. And as for Lucas, I don’t think anyone has any clue what that man saw to have been dumped to the side so strongly by a side that had just spent 17 million pounds on him less than a year before. He’s already asked for his walking papers and it feels like a disappointment as we never knew if he could have added more — I mean, all he did was contribute whenever he was given the chance.

Not surprisingly, due to the issues throughout the season, Lucas’ absence was one of the many sticks with which the manager was beaten. The tactical frailties against Bayern Munich seemed to indicate the end was at hand. And when the team collapsed against the likes of West Brom and Crystal Palace, it was as if the “Wenger Out” meme was on the verge of becoming true. We know he’s taken a new two-year deal and all indications are things are good to continue as they have been — for his sake I do hope they do not. Another season like this one and the fighting that was seen in the stands and on the grounds outside and on Twitter won’t be as contained. Horrible as it is to consider, shit could get worse.

In order to prevent that, Arsenal need a great summer. Not a good summer or an above-average summer. They need a summer that’s exceptional and helps not just build positivity around the club but engenders good will from the quarters of supporters who spent the season angrily protesting. Maybe some are unreachable — so ensconced in their positions as to be unwilling to see anything else — but most are Gooners and want to see Arsenal succeed. Step one on that road has to be building a great squad. That starts with keeping Alexis and Ozil.

AFC - Scorpion KickIt is frightening that we sit less than a fortnight from the transfer window opening and there’s no word of new deals for either the Chilean or the German. OK, maybe Alexis is considering his alternatives, but why is there a hold-up on Ozil? The market for him isn’t as vociferous and there’s every reason to think he would want to stay at Arsenal. Likewise for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey, whose contracts also expire a year from now. They are key starters and contributors to this team but their contract situation is as up in the air as the bigger named teammates. And I’m not including players like Welbeck, Gabriel, Nacho, Cech and Giroud, whose contracts expire in 2019.

Decisions also have to be made on David Ospina, Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere, Lucas Perez, Joel Campbell, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson and Theo Walcott. Some like Ospina, Perez, Jenkinson and Campbell appear set to depart for newer clubs in order to continue their careers. Others like Gibbs, Debuchy, Walcott and Wilshere may have plateau or not be willing to sit on the bench as World Cup squads are built ahead of Russia 2018.  In either case, the club will have to replace them in one way or another — whether that’s bringing youngsters like Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles into the first team for good or buying from the transfer market.

In that aspect, we’ve seen the first addition with former Schalke LB/LWB Sead Kolasinac. The expectation is that he and Nacho will split the left wingback spot as needed. Meanwhile, the transfer rumor mill is churning news that Arsene is set to break all sorts of records for players ranging from Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe to Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette to Kylian Mbappe of Monaco to Real Madrid’s Isco to wunderkind Mbappe from AS Monaco. (Noticing a theme?)

Arsenal Unveil New Signing Sead KolasinacUltimately, the goal has to be to have a better 2017/18 season than the one that ended with the FA Cup in May. Truth is that the FA Cup, a great trophy, isn’t enough to cover up all the ways this team and this club came apart this season. Fights in the stands. Recrimination online every which way. Tales of power struggles between the top figures. Key players unsure of whether or not the club is interested in retaining their services. Waiting till the last minute to plug holes in the team. This was a mess. A complete mess. We thought we were headed towards our goal of leaving the Shoney’s and getting that sweet, sweet Mulan Szechuan sauce. But we never left the Shoney’s.

Time to start making amends, Arsenal Football Club. Your supporters want sweet & sour Mulan Szechuan sauce!