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My Five Favorite Saints Games Under Sean Payton & Drew Brees

Saints - Brees & PaytonI have been enjoying the hell out of this New Orleans Saints season. How could I not? After losing the first two games to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, the Saints have gone on an 8-game winning streak! From starting the season thinking that another mediocre time was about to start to seeing them become one of the best teams in the NFL, it’s been a roller coaster of a season so far. And while, yes, there’s every criticism that this run is built on the backs of some awful teams — like the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — it doesn’t mean that they have not been fun!

In any case, there has been some discussion on Twitter in regards to this last game and how it was one of everyone’s favorite Saints games under Sean Payton & Drew Brees. Which got me thinking which games would I put in that list. So far, not counting playoff games, the head coach/QB combo has racked up a total of 169 games together. That’s from 2006 through this past Sunday with the 2012 season taken out thanks to Roger Goodell. Of course, to be fair, I had to set aside the playoff games (particularly the 2009-10 run to Super Bowl 44). I’ll also special mention the 2006 Monday Night Football game against the Falcons that reopened the Superdome. It was a great game and will be forever etched in my mind, but it’s akin to putting the Super Bowl there — it’s got too much going for it to let any others get in.

With all of that preamble, here are my five favorite Saints games of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.

Saints - Will SmithNumber 5: 10/04/2009 vs New York Jets. Final Score: 24-10. I don’t know if y’all remember that 09 season (rhetorical question of course) but after winning against the Lions, Eagles and Bills, there was a lot of expectations in regards to the back-to-back games the Saints would have against the equally-unbeaten Jets and Giants. Time to prove if the Saints were for real. What is tough to recall is that the offense didn’t record its first touchdown until 6 minutes were left in the game via a Pierre Thomas 1-yd run. What really separated the two teams was the Saints defense. The big difference were a couple of interceptions from Darren Sharper, including a 99-yd pick-six, and the signature play: Will Smith’s strip-sack of Mark Sanchez with Remi Ayodele falling on the ball in the endzone. After this game, I recall thinking “this team is a contender.”

Number 4: 10/23/2011 vs Indianapolis Colts. Final Score: 62-7. I was at this game back when I worked at the Dome during my grad school days. Normally, you just want a good game but with the Peyton Manning-less Colts coming into town, I was hoping for a good win. (Good wins mean fans start leaving early to keep partying outside. That means you get to go home sooner). I don’t think anyone expected what we got. Drew Brees going 31 of 35, 325 yds and 5 TDs. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles rushing for 236 yards. Cam Jordan and Jonathan Vilma each recovering a fumble. Setting a team record for most points put on an opponent was one way to send fans home happy. Look, anyone who’s ever played Madden has, at one point or another, turned it to the easiest setting to see what that would be like. This was the only time I can recall ever seeing that happening in real life.

Saints - WatsonNumber 3: 11/01/2015 vs New York Giants. Final Score: 52-49.  If there’s one thing that has defined the Saints under Payton/Brees is their passing offense. It’s Drew Brees lobbing bombs to everyone from Marques Colston to Jimmy Graham and picking apart defenses with surgical precision. Usually when they’re on, opponents wither. This was a rare instance when the Giants swung back, blow for blow, until the very end. Drew Brees throws for 511 yds and 7 TDs? Eli Manning goes for 350 yds and 6 TDs. Odell Beckham Jr grabs 3 TDs? Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead get 2 each. It was an insane game where whoever got the ball last was going to win. Good thing it was the Saints who finally edged it out thanks to a Kai Forbath FG at the end.

Number 2: 11/19/2017 vs Washington Redskins. Final Score: 34-31. There were many games I could have picked for the “Saints pull victory out of jaws of defeat” choice. There’s the one-two punch of the 2009 Dolphins-Redskins games or last year’s furious comeback against the Chargers. But given it’s the game freshest in my mind, I had to favor this one. Besides, this was a game that was all but done. Less than 5 minutes and down 15? In a game in which Washington’s defense has all but clamped down on the Saints’ offense while the Redskins have moved the ball at will? After Washington made it 31-16 with 5:58 left, the Saints went in 2 drives of 13 plays that took 4:10 to tie the game.  They even punted the ball, forced a massive 3-and-out in order to get the ball and get the touchdown that would bring them within 2. Once the game was tied, I don’t think anyone believed it would end any other way than a Who Dat win. I love that this is something the Saints do now after many years of being on other end.

Saints - Devery

Number 1: 11/12/2009 vs New England Patriots. Final Score: 38-17. You know how I said the Jets/Giants combo in 09 was the time for the Saints to prove themselves? I think this is the game where the idea of a Super Bowl title really crystallized in my mind as a possibility. And why not? Monday Night Football against the best team of the decade and they were completely beaten off the field that night. It’s more than the 371 yds and 5 TDs Drew Brees threw. It’s more than Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell running for a combined 114 yds. It’s Devery Henderson finding himself completely open for Brees to throw him one of those TDs. It was Sedrick Ellis, Darren Sharper and Mike McKenzie (right off the street) coming through with key turnovers to stymie the NFL’s #2 offense at that point. It was forcing Bill Bellichick to say uncle and pull Tom Brady halfway through the fourth quarter. The Saints have had fewer outings better than this one.

But you know, what prompted this was that silly run-first game the Saints had at Buffalo. So there’s every possibility that there’s more, better and crazier games could be in our immediate horizon. I’m just glad this season has been fun and exciting. That’s all you really can hope to ask from year to year. Here’s hoping the next 6+ games are just as good! WHO DAT!

 

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RIP Malcolm Young

ACDC - Malcolm 2This one hurts.

So as I was driving from Finn McCool’s back home, I saw an Instagram post from a friend in which he was wishing Rest in Peace to Malcolm Young. The sad fact is that this was news long a-coming. The former rhythm guitarist of Australian rock gods AC/DC had been diagnosed about three years ago with dementia and news were not good. Word that he had forgotten much, including the songs he had written, was heartbreaking. And while he had been able to finish their last album, Rock or Bust, the intervening years had been quiet. Truth is every Acca Dacca fan knew one day we would hear or read this and know it was the end of AC/DC.

Because more than anyone else, AC/DC was Malcolm Young’s band.

Riff Raff

It seems odd that I would wax poetically about a band that was already considered a dinosaur by the time I hit my adolescence in the mid-1990s. Fact is that they were the first band I truly loved. And the blame falls on a music video and on Columbia House CD club.

ACDC - Malcolm and AngusSee, back in the early 90s, when I had just moved to the States, there wasn’t much for me to do but watch TV. Not that it was bad. TV, for all its flaws, is a great language teacher. You want to know how native speakers speak? Watch their TV shows. So, surfing through the channels one afternoon, I happened upon MTV and a music video (don’t laugh) of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” And I stopped to watch it. There was a large crowd of people going crazy. There was this silly guy duck-stepping across the stage in a weird uniform. There was this chant of “Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! THUNDER!” I watched it rapt because while the images were odd, the music was undeniable. It grooved. It demanded you move to it. I remembered the name. AC/DC.

Let There Be Rock

Few years later, I’m working part-time at Taco Bell (my first job) and I had spent much of my first paycheck on a brand new CD player. It cost me $104 dollars at K-Mart and came with really shitty headphones. But now I needed CDs to go with it. Well, back then, you either went to a music store and spent $10-20 for a CD. OR you signed up for a CD of the Month club who would send you 10 CDs (or 12 or 14) for 1 penny in exchange for you buying 2-3 CDs at their regular price of $24.99.  Let me just say that I am not the only one who took advantage of this offer. In fact, anyone who grew up in the 90s did and found ways to screw the system over. I may even be owing them still for 2 CDs. I don’t know.

In any case, I ordered my 10 CDs. Pearl Jam’s Ten. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. Stone Temple Pilots’ Core. Ace of Base’s The Sign. Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. It was a verytable cornucopia of early-to-mid 90s fare. And in there, I had made sure to order two AC/DC CDs: AC/DC Live and Back in Black. I got them on a Friday when I got back to work and had just enough time to bust the box open before I had to go to work providing the youth of Metairie with burritos, nachos supremes and Mexican pizzas.

ACDC - YoungsWhen I got back that evening, my brother said “You gotta hear this” and put the headphones on my ears, put the Back in Black CD on and went to track 6 — the title track. And I heard the iconic cymbals count followed by the launch of one of rock music’s most famous and recognizable riffs. I spent that night listening to that album forwards and backwards. The next day I went through AC/DC Live and listened to it all before heading to work. In less than 12 hours I was a devoted fan for life.

Highway to Hell

I’ll grant you, in terms of musical complexity, AC/DC are not high. They never meant to be or cared to be, to be fair.  They were what they were since the mid-1970s through their 1980s heydays and 1990s resurgence: a three-power-chords, 4/4 signature, blues-riffs-based rock & roll outfit that sang mostly about girls and about a good time. That never changed right until the end. Some would call that stagnation. I would call it not messing with perfection. After all, there are many complex bands out there. There was only one AC/DC. Even with the million clones they spawned, there was only one AC/DC.

(Side story: while making The Razor’s Edge album, AC/DC struck a friendship with Motley Crue, who were working on their own album in the same studio. One day, drummer Tommy Lee asked Malcolm Young to buy one of his guitars. Malcolm sold him the guitar. A month later, a friend of Tommy Lee’s asked him how it was going and he is alleged to have said that no matter what song he played, it only sounded like Malcolm Young was playing it).

And much of that was down to its founder, leader and rhythm guitarist, Malcolm Young. Unlike his flashier brother or the lead singers, Malcolm stayed in the back and quiet while on stage. He and bassist Cliff Williams would step up to sing backup vocals, then step right back alongside the drummer — whether Phil Rudd, Simon Wright or Chris Slade. They would let the two in front do all the work and hog the spotlight, even as everyone and their momma kept getting pounded by the sledgehammer that was their rhythm section. Don’t take it from me. Musicians like Scott Ian of Anthrax have lauded the rhythm section of AC/DC as the best in rock history.

Shoot to Thrill

ACDC - LiveBehind the scenes, Malcolm was an even greater influence. Everything from how AC/DC ran, what they did, how they did it, etc went through him.  When Bon Scott accidentaly passed away in 1980, it was Malcolm who started the process of getting the band back on its feet. He was also the primary songwriter, coming up with many of the lyrics and most of the famous riffs that everyone knows. “Highway to Hell”? Malcolm came up with that. “Back in Black”? Angus heard Malcolm play it and said “I’ll have that if you won’t.”

The truth is that there was and is tremendous power within those power riffs that Malcolm Young crafted. It’s reptilian brain. It’s caveman. It bypasses all the frontal cortex processes and embeds itself in your emotional side. AC/DC’s music is all chest and it’s all guts and it’s all groin. At its core, that’s what rock & roll is — the music censors of the old days weren’t wrong to be alarmed at what the kids were hearing. It was music designed to assault your emotional center and make you feel things. To hear the riff to “Shoot To Thrill” and feel 10-feet tall and bulletproof. To tap your feet to “You Shook Me All Night Long” and find yourself singing along with the chorus. To drive down a highway and hear “Highway to Hell” start and put that foot to the gas just a tiny bit harder.

Whole Lotta Rosie

If you think that’s not what a teenage boy needs right around age 15 when he’s looking for something that is his and separate from his family’s, when he smells of taco shells, when he’s got no car, little to no chance with the girls and a weird accent, well, you have no idea. AC/DC were like a shot of testosterone to make me believe things would be all right eventually. And they were right.

I did get to see them once live. During the 1996 Ballbreaker tour, I was in school in Memphis and they played at the now-defunct Memphis Pyramid. It was an amazing night where I and my college roommate got to see them rock the hell out. Everyone called them dinosaurs but they were loud and fast and everyone was blown the hell away. See, many bands work on the album and tour to support. AC/DC put out albums so they could go out and put shows on. And they were until their last day, an amazing live show. (For proof I hope you’ve clicked on some of the links I’ve peppered throughout this post).

There were bands that were louder than AC/DC. There were bands that were faster than AC/DC. There were no bands that were as loud and as fast that also grooved like AC/DC. That was all down to Malcolm Young. Rest in peace, rock god.

And thank you.

You Shook Me All Night Long

acdc - acdc

(Malcolm Young passed away at age 64. He’s survived by his wife and two daughters.)

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“Thor: Ragnarok” Review: “Great Odin’s Raven!”

Thor - PosterLooking at it from the outside, none of this should work. The Thor series, while financially successful, has often been derided amongst fans and critics as the weakest part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its two previous entries — Thor and Thor: The Dark World — often bring up the rear in discussions of MCU movie rankings. The best part of the series, the performances by Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, have shone brighter in other movies within the MCU. In terms of excitement, there’s much more interest in the upcoming Black Panther or the just-released Spider-Man: Homecoming. So handing it over to a director best known for indie fare such as Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows does not seem like it would make sense. I mean, Kenneth Brannagh brought his Shakespearean background into Thor while Alan Taylor tried to mix in his fantasy know-how into The Dark World. And people stayed away in droves. Turning it over to the guy whose biggest role is Ryan Reynolds’ best friend in the failure that was Green Lantern? Really?

The punchline though is it works. It works beautifully.

Thor: Ragnarok picks up on the god of thunder’s self-imposed quest to track down the remaining Infinity Stones which he started after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Two years have passed and he comes to find out that Odin is no longer in Asgard — the act of Loki at the end of The Dark World. Upon finding him though, they are warned by their father of the release of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death and their big sister. Her arrival signals the start of Ragnarok, the prophesied end of Asgard and its people. The brothers are unable to stand to her power and are scattered into the cosmos — Thor landing in Sakaar, a planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) for the express purpose of pitting warriors of all kinds in gladiatorial games. Drafted into these games, Thor desperately tries to recruit Scrapper-142 (Tessa Thompson) while having to face off against the Grandmaster’s champion, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

If that plot synopsis seems dense, trust me that I am not even coming close to sharing it all. There’s a lot more elements in play here but they should be discovered by everyone who goes to see it. And everyone should see it. Because it is a ton of tremendous fun. Director Taika Waititi takes the script from Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost and just goes to town realizing one of the most unique, crazy, colorful and fun movies the MCU has ever seen.

Thor - Loki & ThorSo let’s back up a bit and talk about what they carry over from the previous movies. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are back and front and center once again. Without a doubt, their chemistry has been the best aspect of this series and Waititi focuses on that. With almost a decade with these characters, it’s not a surprise that they manage to find that chemistry again. Here, however, more than before their relationship as brothers is central. Hemsworth manages to show how Thor has grown from the petulant, quick-to-anger young man of the first movie. He’s a thinker. He considers his actions. He plots. Likewise, while Loki continues being a double-crossing dangerous jerk, you get a look behind the mask so to speak. He’s someone who wants the admiration and love that Thor obtains. In many ways, everything about Loki is defined by growing up with, loving but never being Thor. But just because he cannot stand all the love that Thor gets and he does not, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some element of love or care for him. Their banter remains great and the stories the characters share about one another put on display how much these two characters need one another.

And their relationship stands in stark contrast to that with that of Hela. You can totally sense that Blanchett is having the time of her life bringing the monstrous and lethal goddess of death to life. Her smiles turn to snarls with a snap. She struts through scenes and glares at opponents as if her eyes might burn any weaklings out of her path. Whether she’s pontificating to the people of Asgard, speaking with her underling Skurge (Karl Urban) or facing off against Thor or Loki, Blanchett imbues Hela with both a dignified, haughty air as well as a ferocious and lethal rage. She’s one of the best villains in the MCU.

Thor - ScrapperOf the rest of the cast, I’ll highlight two specific performances. The first is that of Tessa Thompson as Scrapper-142. She’s a far cry from Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster or even Jaime Alexander’s Sif. She’s funny and she’s tough and she’s a hard-drinker and she’s a badass and she’s carrying some real emotional wounds that relate to the story. And she’s all this while lifting the movie up. Her chemistry with the boys is real and it’s fun and it’ll be great to see her in more Marvel movies. The other performance to highlight is oddly enough the voice work by Waititi himself as the CGI rock gladiator Korg. Inspired by the Polynesian bouncers he’s met in his native New Zealand, Korg is a giant with the softest voice imaginable and an almost innocent outlook on life. He’s also prone to cause some of the biggest laughs in this movie. The rest acquit themselves as you’d normally suspect — Mark Ruffalo is great as The Hulk/Bruce Banner, Jeff Goldblum is his Jeff Goldblum-iest as The Grandmaster, Anthony Hopkins, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Rachel House, et al do well in their roles.

So what does Waititi get right that Brannagh and Taylor did not quite get? First, he’s made a Thor movie that is colorful and unique and visually-arresting. The work of production designers Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent, set decorator Beverley Dunn, art directors Bill Booth, Brendan Heffernan, Richard Hobbs, Alex McCarroll & Laura Ng, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, and costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo is all over this screen. There’s a difference in how the various worlds look and feel. The trash heaps and cities of Sakaar are quite different from the picturesque beauty of Asgard or Earth. Add on top the work of Industrial Light & Magic and the other special effects studios and what you have is a Thor movie where Thor feels part of a larger universe — not just off doing his own thing in a staid corner of the MCU.

But more than that, Waititi took in a lot of his 70s/80s sci-fi and fantasy influences and inserted them into the process of making this movie. Everything from Flash Gordon to Big Trouble in Little China inspired the idea of what Ragnarok was going to be. That’s clear in the costumes and the sets of Sakaar. It’s also prevalent in the score by Mark Mothersbaugh, who throws in synthesizers and tries to channel Queen, as per Waititi’s request, for a score that’s unique and different. Chuck in “The Immigrant Song” as an anthem for the god of thunder and you’ve another element working towards making Ragnarok fun for the audience.

Thor - HelaHowever, at its heart, Thor: Ragnarok is a continuation of the central dilemmas that have propelled the entire series. Namely, growing up and being worthy. Thor started out as a vainglorious, self-centered and immature being who was meant to inherit his father’s throne and the responsibility of safeguarding the Nine Realms. In seeking war with the Frost Giants, he proved himself unworthy of the power he had and the inheritance that was to be his. Though he proved he could think of others, he was still too focused on his own personal feelings in The Dark World to truly take on Odin’s mantle. In being cast out by Hela — herself a darker representation of what Thor could become — Thor is finally put in a position to think of his people and his position as the responsibilities that they are.

It is the same for Loki. The younger brother, who has grown up in the shadow of Thor’s mighty exploits and hated it even as he loved his brother, is also made to come to terms with who he is without Thor or Odin by his side. It’s one thing to be the duplicitous, shady and sometimes evil one. But who is Loki without Asgard? Without Thor? He has tried to be a conqueror and pretended to be a king.  The conflict within Loki has always been trying to live up to who his adoptive father and step-brother have been and rejecting their ways because he has come up short. Ragnarok provides him the opportunity to be both his sly, duplicitous self and to be a hero.

This coming to terms with who they were and who they are trying to be runs through the various characters though, not just Thor and Loki. The Hulk, trapped on Sakaar as a gladiatorial champion continues to struggle with his rage. Scrapper-142’s past is at the heart of who she is and why she’s on Sakaar, drinking and fighting her way through life. Even the relationship between Odin and Hela in here is colored by their past exploits and how different they perceived their goals to be: Odin as bringer of freedom versus Hela as conqueror of worlds. Some characters grow because of this internal conflict while others reject the chance and remain static. In a way that is similar to life.

Thor - Korg.jpgOne can easily see the progress from Thor through The Dark World to Ragnarok and notice the path that the god of thunder was meant to take. What Thor: Ragnarok does to get us to the end point though is make the final leg as fun and exciting as possible. There’s tremendous amount of humor in this to be sure. But Waititi has pulled the same trick that James Gunn pulled with the original Guardians of the Galaxy: make something that’s fun, funny and heartfelt all within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine. In so doing, he’s not only rescued the weakest single series in the MCU but also made one of their best movies.

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“It” Review: “And We’ll All Float On”

It - PosterI do not think it was possible to be a child of the 70s or 80s and make it to adulthood without experiencing, at one point or another, a Stephen King work. Whether on the printed page, the TV screen or the movie theater, the creations of the “Master of Horror” were almost a rite of passage in those days. As of this, there’s been 43 movie adaptations and 30 TV series and mini-series adapted from his 56 novels and over 200 short stories — and I’m not even counting the numerous sequels of various quality levels that don’t use any work of his.  Regardless of whether they featured some supernatural entity or not, King always found a way to feature a memorable villain in his tales. Think of Randall Flagg stalking America in The Stand, Jack Torrance wandering the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Annie Wilkes standing over the bed in Misery or Kurt Barlow rising from his coffin in ‘Salem’s Lot. The man knows how to make a good villain. And right smack in the middle of it is Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Now, if you were to look for coulrophobia (the term that is translated as “fear of clowns”) you won’t find it in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It instead falls under the “Specific Phobia” category for fear induced by specific triggers which covers everything there isn’t a diagnosis for). What is interesting is that it almost appears as if this modern terror came to be popularized as a result of the novel It. Perhaps it was the right work at the right time. Poltergeist had that creepy clown doll that came alive. DC Comics was reconceptualizing The Joker at the same time towards a more menacing clown than he’d been in decades. New interest on the life and crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy led to a rediscovery of sorts of his Pogo the Clown persona. Pennywise fit right into it all — culminating in the epic interpretation by Tim Curry in the 1990 ABC mini-series. But the terror of It lied as much with the people of Derry as it did with the eponymous monster.

It focuses on seven eleven-year-old misfit kids who live in the small town of Derry, ME in 1988-89 and call themselves the Losers’ Club.  They include Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Each one is an outcast for one reason or another: Bill stutters, Ben is overweight and new to town, Richie wears glasses and is skinny, Eddie has a number of ailments, Stanley is Jewish, Mike is African-American in a white town and Beverly is a girl accused of promiscuity. One rainy day, Bill’s brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) takes a paper boat his brother made for him out and runs into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), a monster that feeds on the fear and flesh of the people of Derry.  But that is not the only monster the Losers must contend over the next year.  They have to face Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of bullies. They have to deal with parents of all types. And perhaps worst of all, they have to do all of this alone.It - Georgie

One of the greatest aspects of King’s novel was the way in which it managed to isolate his protagonists from the world around them. By making the Losers’ Club his heroes, King found a way to explain why people would not necessarily believe them — adults would dismiss them as children at play while their peers would see them as the Losers being the Losers. The movie follows much of this idea and makes the fate of Derry and their own lives their own affair. Part of it is Pennywise’s power but part of it is that the small town of Derry makes its bed in ignoring the number of tragedies that seem to befall them every generation.

What the movie also gets right is the sense of children right as they are about to leave childhood. It helps that they have a solid cast leading things. Leiberher (of Midnight Special) and Wolfhard (of Stranger Things) are the most recognizable faces but all of the young cast acquit themselves well here. Lieberher’s Bill carries the burden of his brother’s death on his shoulders. Meanwhile Wolfhard is the comedian of the group and gets some of the best lines in the movie — at usually the worst moments. I’ll also highlight Lillis’ performance as Beverly because she has to do double-duty, portraying the more adult member of the Losers’ Club — bringing the rest of them along towards adolescence — as well as the girl who lives with a different kind of monster.

Speaking of monsters, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is not the same as Curry’s. That isn’t a surprise. Freed from the censors of prime-time network TV, Skarsgard is allowed to make Pennywise less of a silly, fun clown and more of the monster that King envisioned. He takes on many different forms — a leper for Eddie, a misshapen painting image for Stan, a bloody geyser for Beverly. (Aside: gee, I wonder what King was hinting at with these monster images for our characters).  But for Pennywise, there is less immediate charm but that’s not a bad thing. You’re always aware of the threat, the danger, that the grinning clown signifies for our young heroes. He’s like a charming shark or a soft-spoken snake; grinning before eating. He gets some great jump scares in here also.

It - Bev's FearI will give credit for the young cast’s performances to director Andy Muschietti who showed similar deftness with young actors in his feature debut, Mama. Working off the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti does a solid job of combining the two elements juxtaposing against one another in this story: the Losers’ Club fight against It and their own individual and collective growth and development from children into adulthood.  And while at the heart, there’s the conflict with Pennywise, it is all the other issues the Losers are dealing which ground the story.

Muschietti manages to find the quiet streets and alleyways of small-town Derry and it is in these hidden corners that the story of the Losers and Pennywise plays out. Rather than making them dark or mysterious, it’s interesting how sunny and bright it all is. Pennywise isn’t a creature of the dark. He appears in the middle of the day and has no compunction in striking when his targets are alone; regardless of time or location. That also plays with that other half of the tale: Beverly’s home is dark and dingy, a reflection of her father’s nasty nature towards her while the office of Stanley’s dad manages to contain more shadows than a rabbi’s office normally should.

In that way, Muschietti and his team follow the more important aspect of King’s work: the monsters that are not supernatural which plague the Losers. Embodied in Henry Bowers, in Gretta (Megan Charpentier) and her friends, in Mr. Marsh (Stephen Bogaert) and Ms. Kasprak (Molly Atkinson), the Losers are forced to confront more than one danger in their year. And while there’s something terrifying in the manner of It, at least there’s comfort in knowing it is an other-worldly threat. How does Beverly deal with her abusive and lecherous father? How do Mike and Ben face off against Henry and his goons? Or Eddie manage his over-protective hypochondriac mother? Facing off against Pennywise is almost an easier quest for them. In doing both, the Losers are meant to shed their innocence and come to grips with the dangers and realities of adulthood.

I’ll have to potentially spoil somethings now before it is all over. So if spoilers bug you, just skip to the last paragraph. So…SPOILERS START

It_09162016_Day 57_16310.dngIn splitting the large tome that is It into two chapters and focusing each one of the movies on a specific time period, I do wonder if some of the larger themes are lost in translation. The novel focuses not only on how fighting Pennywise brings the Losers’ Club together but also in how it impacts them as adults. Things do not necessarily turn out great for them as adults as they carry the scars from their fight for the rest of their lives. And dealing with that post-traumatic stress does factor in the choices they make as adults. While I do not doubt that they will be a factor in the soon-to-come Chapter 2, it was in that juxtaposition of children growing up facing a monster versus adults grown and dealing with the fallout and the monster again that the brilliance of the novel laid.  The decision to split the book in two makes sense financially and creatively. But how they stick the landing will be interesting to see. SPOILERS END

Ultimately It is a solid adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best works. The novel and the movie are anchored by the burgeoning friendship amidst the Losers’ Club. The movie does great work in making us care for these children as they face off against something supernatural. In that metaphor for growing up lies a great deal of fear and terror. You cannot count on the adults because they ignore It or cannot see It. You might not even be able to count on others of your peers because they’re too busy desperately trying to be something else. But if you have friends, you can face off against a trans-dimensional monster that feeds on children’s fears.

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Game of Thrones: The Monster at the End & “The Dragon & The Wolf”

GOT - Dany & DrogonSorry for the delay, but I wanted to let this last episode before 2019 marinate in the head. In any case, here we go:

Ever since the first moments in Game of Thrones, we have known who the greatest threat to the Seven Kingdoms were. Three brothers of the Night’s Watch came upon them, killed two while and ran for his life. When captured, that man managed to tell the Warden of the North the truth of what was coming. For his troubles, he was beheaded as a deserter and dismissed as a madman.  But he knew the truth that was coming.

In many ways, this episode brought home a lot of those truths to the various characters in the Seven Kingdoms. And some would not survive them.

For the Dragon Queen and the King in the North, their entire quest to bring back a wight to King’s Landing meant confronting the Queen in the Iron Throne. This also meant a confrontation between the various characters aligned with one or the other — Bronn met up with Tyrion and Podrick, Theon came face to face again with his uncle Euron, Sandor Clegane confronted his brother, Gregor. But they all paled in comparison to the meeting between Cersei and Daenerys, the rivals for the Seven Kingdoms.  The older queen and the younger queen sized each other up at long last before Sandor Clegane dropped a ton of truth on the Lannisters in the force of the wight.

The shrieking spirit took its newfound freedom to try and attack Cersei and, in that moment, the pretense of many appeared to fall away. Euron Greyjoy appeared to turn and run — abandoning Cersei’s cause. Qyburn — a man devoted to bringing things back from the dead — was mesmerized. Jaime Lannister stared in horror at the truth that his brother and his allies had been talking about. But Cersei, despite her shock, never stopped calculating. She used the chance for a truce with Daenerys to demand that Jon Snow keep his troops in the North and never take arms against the Lannisters. Here the vow Jon made to Dany’s cause came back to bite them as he could not make such a promise to Cersei.

Though at first, it looked like a crazy demand from someone who manipulates people, it was but one in a series of moves by Cersei to try and position her claim and status ahead of her rivals should the war against the White Walkers be won. Forced to confront both of her brothers, Cersei appeared to give not just her agreement to a truce, but to uniting her forces with those of Dany and Jon in a front that would face the Army of the Dead. But it was all a lie. While Jon, Dany, Tyrion and their forces were making plans on moving towards Winterfell, Jaime was forced to come to terms with Cersei’s lies. Euron had not abandoned their cause. He had gone to fetch the Golden Company to assist in their cause. And she would not send the Lannister forces north despite having promised so.

GOT - Jaime & Cersei

This latest set of lies brings Jaime Lannister face to face with the monster that his sister has become. It’s not just that she’s betraying the cause she swore to uphold. It’s not just that she’s attempting to keep her hold on the Iron Throne. It’s that, despite the horror she just got a glimpse of, Cersei is willing to play the old game of thrones against the fate of humanity — including their unborn child. Jaime, at long last, realizes that there is no depth, no horror, nothing more sacred to his sister than her quest for power. Just as the Mad King would have burned King’s Landing to deny his foes victory, so would his lover betray all those fighting against a horde of death if she could be the last ruler in the Seven Kingdoms. Feeling betrayed, Jaime abandons Cersei and heads off by himself northwards — the flakes of snow falling over him a cold warning of the incoming winter and its doom.

Someone who feels as if he’s betrayed all he stood for is Theon Greyjoy. He betrayed the Starks when he returned to take over Winterfell under his father’s banner. He betrayed his Greyjoy nature by being with the Starks.  He then betrayed Yara by abandoning her to their mad uncle — a monster in his own right.  But with the end of the world possibly coming, Theon decides to confront his monsters head on.  First, he asks for forgiveness from Jon Snow, the man who leads House Stark now.  Then he heads to the shore to rally Yara’s sailors to follow him in a rescue mission. They’re not as enthused and it takes a tough fight for Theon to win their respect enough that they will follow him. This will bring him face to face with the monster that is his uncle but also the monster that he’s still dealing with — the abuse he faced at the hands of Ramsay Bolton.

Further northward, the Stark sisters appeared set for a showdown — one helped along its way by Littlefinger. He appears to be helping Sansa reach the conclusion that Arya is after her title as Lady of Winterfell because she does not trust her to try and maneuver herself into power above Jon. It seems as if Sansa is set to confront Arya in the Great Hall of Winterfell, surrounded by soldiers and lords, when the rug is pulled from underneath Petyr Baelish and he’s the one charged with treason and murder by Sansa. In that moment, the scheming, backstabbing and treason of Littlefinger came to the light. One of the biggest monsters in the story was confronted by the people he had victimized for so long.

It was Littlefinger who had set the Starks and the Lannisters against one another. It was Littlefinger who had made Lysa Arryn poison her husband, Lord Jon Arryn, and then later murdered her to take power in the Vale. It was Littlefinger who told Ned and Catelyn that the knife used to attempt to take Bran’s life was Tyrion’s — sparking Catelyn’s arrest of the Imp and beginning the war.  It was Littlefinger who betrayed Ned Stark to the Lannisters, turned Sansa over to the Boltons, worked with the Tyrells to murder Joffrey and so many more moves big and small. In many ways, the War of the Five Kings was all his doing — he set the pieces in motion and ensured that Westeros fell into carnage and chaos. And it was all done to grow his own power. Petyr Baelish has been one of the biggest monsters in this story since its start.

GOT - BaelishSo it was no small amount of pleasure to see him brought to his knees, begging and pleading for his life, before the children of those he betrayed. His scheming and maneuvering smoked out by the one he claimed to love. Sansa had played the player; outschemed the schemer. When he said to turn to Brienne of Tarth, she sent him away. When he told her to think of what Arya would do, she instead thought of what Baelish would think Arya would do. Sansa knows her sister. Rough, wild, dangerous though she may be, she’s been adamant since her childhood days that she did not want to be a lady, least of all Lady of Winterfell.

So at long last, Petyr Baelish was made to pay for his crimes. Lord Royce of the Vale refused to aid him and, found guilty by the girl he trained, he lost his life via the dagger he used to start the War of the Five Kings. The dagger wielded by the daughter of the man he betrayed and turned over by the boy it had been sent to kill. In a story of big monsters, he fell on the cold floor of the Great Hall and no one shed a tear for him. Not the knights of the Vale. Not the bannermen of the wolves. And certainly not the children of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.

But the biggest revelation was the one that came from Bran and Sam Tarly. That the bastard son of Eddard Stark is neither a bastard nor his son. Thanks to Bran’s visions, we know that Jon is the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Thanks to the private diaries of a High Septon which Gilly uncovered as Sam transcribed for the Maesters, we come to know that Lyanna and Rhaegar were wed in a secret ceremony — making Jon the trueborn son of the Crown Prince and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. (His claim superseding that of his aunt, Daenerys Targaryen). And that his real name was never Jon Snow. He’s Aegon Targaryen.

If only Jon and Dany knew of that prior to finally succumbing to their growing feelings for one another, it might have prevented greater possible dangers down the road. For as Bran was uncovering the full truth of the secret that led to Robert’s Rebellion, the fall of the Targaryens, the Sack of King’s Landing and everything else that has happened since, Jon and Dany were falling into bed with one another. It makes sense: they’re singular figures, alone with the weight of the world on their shoulders and finding in each other a kindred spirit. But how will the truth of Jon’s, excuse me, Aegon’s parentage impact that? How will it impact the tenuous alliance they’ve built and the people around who depend on them to lead?

Or will they even have a chance? For as they were heading northwards, the Army of the Dead finally reached The Wall — that ancient work designed to keep them out of the Seven Kingdoms. And here’s where the folly of Jon’s mission to bring a wight to King’s Landing is fully revealed. For as Tormund and Ser Beric Dondarrion stare in horror, the Night King swoops from on high on the back of the resurrected Viserion. The undead dragon, breathing blue flame, brings down The Wall around Eastwatch by the Sea and creates the opening for the undead horde to march into the Seven Kingdoms.

GOT - Army of the DeadAnd this is where the story leaves us: with only the certainty of a final showdown between the Army of the Dead and the armies of the living in Westeros. One monster is dead, one remains in power but growing isolated from anyone who cares for her and one leads its army into battle. The story of Game of Thrones has always revolved around how people respond to great crises and threats both big and small. But it was always leading to these clashes. In classic fantasy, the hero rises triumphantly, slays the final monster at the end and rules happily and in peace. The world of Ice and Fire is not like that though. Heroes may rise and they may slay the monster — but the price to do so will be terrible. And there is no guarantee that whoever does it will live happily or in peace.

If you think this story has a happy ending….

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Game of Thrones: Band of Brothers & “Beyond The Wall”

GOT - RangingIt has been a strange and sometimes difficult journey for the various characters in our story. That’s a bit of a cliché but it’s not untrue at this point. For anyone who has survived it to this point, that has happened either one of two ways: thanks to their wits or thanks to their friends. And for most, it’s been thanks to the second as even the smartest players have found themselves at the mercy of luck or of forces greater than they could oppose. It’s the ability to find common ground with people who may have opposed you, who may still be set against your goals, that has given each and every one of the survivors of the game of thrones the opportunity to still be breathing and trying to challenge for their goals.

For the various members of the group ranging beyond the gates of Eastwatch by the Sea, they were all brought together by different means — and some have been enemies at one point or another. It was Sandor Clegane who dealt Ser Beric Dondarrion one of the six deaths from which Thoros of Myr has returned him. Now the three march together as members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, sent this way by a vision The Hound had in Thoros’ flames of a mountain shaped like an arrowhead.  The very same Brotherhood also sold Gendry to Melisandre when all he wanted to do was be one of them. Instead, he was used for his king’s blood in the Red Priestess’ rituals and may have been doomed but for the interjection by Ser Davos Seaworth. Now he marches with the same men though he continues to hold a grudge against them. In a similar way, Tormund Giantsbane marches alongside Ser Jorah Mormont, the son of the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who was such a pain on the wildlings’ side.

Jorah is there because of the allegiance and love he has for his queen, Daenerys Targaryen. But the march brings him alongside another man who saw a worthwhile father figure in the Old Bear, Jon Snow. Ever the noble figure, Jon agree to return his Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw, back to Mormont — returning House Mormont’s ancient sword back to its rightful house. But Mormont knows he lost all right to it when he fled and that his father found someone worthy when he gave it to the new King in the North. But that may not be all the erstwhile knight might have lost to the Bastard of Winterfell.GOT - Encircled

Down on Dragonstone, Tyrion sets to the task of trying to convince Daenerys that there may be a different way to rule than through fear or intimidation. This is what he promised Varys he would do. After all, if Dany is to win allies to her cause, then she needs to find ways to bring them to her side that don’t involve the terror of dying by dragonfire. So he tries to talk to her of a vision grander than the immediate concerns; of succession and of a way to ensure the work of Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, isn’t undone after her passing. Dany, though, is having none of it. There is some mistrust of her Queen’s Hand due to her recent losses and to the heritage that Tyrion inevitably brings due to his family. That said, he does speak to a kernel of truth in regards to the growing sentiment between the Dragon Queen and the King in the North. Perhaps it may turn into an alliance; perhaps into something more. Invariably, it seems the heart and head of Daenerys Stormborn are less with her Hand and more with her rival to the North.

Back in the North, Jon’s sisters are finding their familial bonds are not enough to survive the scheming of Littlefinger. Having found Sansa’s letter to Robb in which she denounced her father as a traitor, it doesn’t take much for the animosity the younger Stark sister had towards the Lannisters to swing to her older sister. All their old rivalries and childish errors take on a darker, more sinister tone. Sansa sees no choice but to turn to Littlefinger and ask for his advice — and he tells her to seek out Brienne of Tarth for protection against her sister.  Sansa listens to it and then opts to send Brienne south to the meeting being set by Cersei and Daenerys. Was it a wise move? A means of finding out what move Littlefinger had and then trying to beat it? Or was it a foolish move? It appears so when Sansa finds the bag with the faces in Arya’s room and comes face to face — pardon the pun — with the assassin trained by a death cult and not her younger sister. The moment makes it clear to Sansa that she may no longer be dealing with little Arya Underfoot but with someone far more dangerous. Her sister may not be seeing her as anything but an enemy any more.

GOT - Sansa & Arya

In terms of danger though, nothing compares to when the party finds and captures a wight. During the battle, Jon uses Longclaw to kill the white walker and the wights that follow it shatter and lose their magic. Does that meant that the massive Army of the Dead has a weakness? That they need not fight all the foot soldiers as long as they can kill the masters? They don’t have time to ponder these thoughts as the rest of the army descends upon them and traps them on a tiny island in the middle of a frozen lake. The ranging and their battles cost them dearly — the bulk of the Brotherhood Without Banners falls, including Thoros of Myr.  His death a stark warning to the others that they don’t have the means to be brought back from the dead as Beric and Jon have in the past.

Forced to fight for their survival and their mission, the remaining warriors try to hold out until Daenerys shows up with her dragons to rescue them — and she does thanks to Gendry’s timely arrival back at Eastwatch. The dragons prove more than a match for the chattel of dead and rotten flesh that is assaulting their mother’s warriors. But even they prove weak to the magic of the White Walkers. With one lance, the Night King brings down Viseryon and kills it. The loss of one of her children momentarily stunning Dany and everyone around her and causing them to flee in panic, leaving Jon behind as he’s dragged into the icy lake. His ultimate survival is a result of the sacrifice of his old uncle, Benjen Stark, who arrives in the nick of time to save him from the wights before he’s torn apart. The man who brought him into the Night’s Watch, whose fate had driven Jon for so long, arrives to save him and they don’t have the time to say but a few words.

Much is made of the bond made by warriors in times of battle. With good reason. To trust in one another when a lack of trust means death brings a heavy burden. Throughout their ordeal, all the warriors’ mistrust fell away because it had to. Thoros gave his life protecting Sandor Clegane from an undead bear on fire. When Jorah Mormont nearly fell off Drogon’s back, it was Tormund who lunged for him and ensured he survived. While Dany’s trust for Tyrion fell, she found a deeper trust for Jon Snow, who finally agreed to bend the knee and swear fealty to her. It is one thing to swear loyalty when things are easy. It’s another to have to live up to it when the enemy is all around you and death is but a moment’s breath away.

GOT - Night KingBut even as Dany’s and Jon’s side gained the proof they so desperately needed to try and convince Cersei Lannister of the truth, so did the Night King gain something powerful in return. Using his army, he drags the remains of Viseryon out of the lake and reanimates the dead dragon into his servant.  How will the Mother of Dragons deal with seeing one of her children riding against her? Destroying her friends and aiding her enemies? In what way will this shift in power make the White Walkers’ quest easier?

As we head into the season’s end, only questions are being found.

 

 

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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.