Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Guy Behind The Guy: An Appreciation of Davos Seaworth

The big personalities of Westeros have entourages that would make Ari Gold blush - the lords and ladies that flit around what has become a revolving door of rulers can be dizzying, but there is one constant companion any good king or queen needs, and that is a “hand” - a first-among-equals advisor who (in theory) can give their ruler the unvarnished truth and wise counsel while executing their superior’s orders. Tyrion Lannister is clever and Qyburn is sadistic, but give me Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight himself, any day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

Sure, Davos is a flirt (looking at you Missandei), has a good heart (RIP the Princess Shireen) and he may come from nothing and have a Flea Bottom accent, but for my money, he embodies the qualities a good hand should have - he is loyal to those he serves, he has a strong moral compass, and he sees the big picture. At three critical points during Game of Thrones it is this last quality that served Davos’s superiors well:

First, it was Stannis, on the balls of his ass after getting (literally) blown out of the water at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. His army in tatters and his dream of ruling the Seven Kingdoms all but snuffed out, Stannis and Davos make a journey to the Iron Bank in Braavos. Their goal? Get a line of credit from the stoic bankers to buy an army of sell swords for a second shot at glory. Things do not go so well for Stannis. First, he is left cooling his heels for hours, growing more and more impatient, then, when he is granted an audience, the money lenders are quick to dismiss his request. 

When all appears lost, and Stannis is about to sulk away, Davos steps up. He appeals to the bankers’ logic and reason even though he himself is uneducated and barely literate. Davos understands that the Iron Bank is most concerned with making wise “investments” (or “bets” as Cersei would call them in Season 7) and in framing the ongoing battle as one between a child king (Tommen) of questionable parentage (elliptically referencing the incestuous consummation that produced him) and an experienced military leader with a much stronger claim to the throne (as the brother of the deceased King Robert), Davos’s pitch carries the day. The pair walk out of Braavos with the money they need to make another run at King’s Landing.

Next, after Stannis’s defeat, Davos latches on to the Starks, traveling with them through the North in an effort to form an army that will retake Winterfell. Jon and Sansa are flummoxed and shot down by the brassy leader of Bear Island, ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont, who has no time (or fucks to give) for their sycophantry or bald appeals for fealty. It is only when Davos steps up (again, when it appears all is lost), that the worm turns. First, he relates to Lyanna, expressing empathy for her situation as a young ruler at a time of war. He then tells his own story of being a crabber’s son now addressing a leader of a “noble house.” His flattery is not forced, rather, he is acknowledging the difficult position a young girl has been placed in. Once he has established her trust (“go on, Sir Davos”), he makes his appeal, connecting her own family and the Starks, the threat of the Night King and the need to unite the North (which, incidentally, requires removing Ramsey) to prepare for the larger battle. Again, he prevails and 62 hearty Mormonts (along with their precocious ruler) come to Jon and Sansa’s aid.

Finally, Davos returns to Dragonstone, this time at Jon’s side, not Stannis’s, to meet Queen Daenerys, whose dragons the men are quite interested in appropriating to fight the White Walkers. Of course, Dany is more interested in Jon’s submission and acknowledgment of her claim as the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon is not a man of many words and his hair-on-fire warnings about the Night King (about whom Dany knows nothing) are falling on deaf ears even as she is flaunting the symbols of her power - the great throne room they address her in, the dragons that swoop over the island, and the Dothraki killers who serve at her command. 

Here again, Davos has an intuitive sense of the room, turning Dany’s words back on her to underscore the similarities between her and Jon. She birthed dragons and brought the Dothraki across the sea, he united the Wildlings and the North men. She is queen by birthright, he is king because a lot of “hard sons of bitches” chose him as their leader. His praise of Jon is matter-of-fact but it has its intended effect - a first meeting that looked to be spiraling toward disaster is instead converted into something approaching grudging respect, as Dany sends Davos and Jon off to quarters with baths drawn and meals on delivery. 


Davos may not be great at rolling off titles, but he has a fingertip feel for what strings to pull at what moment to diffuse a situation, which makes him a very valuable person to have standing next to you. 

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Review - Mid-Life Ex-Wife

What does a hot mess look like at fifty? It is not pretty. Stella Grey’s Mid-Life Ex-Wife is equal parts car crash and page turner as she plumbs the depths of Internet dating for women of a certain age. Grey is brassy, a quick wit and unafraid to share intimate details better left unmentioned (I really didn’t need to know about the date that got interrupted because she had diarrhea or her less-than-Penthouse-Forum-quality cyber and phone sex sessions), but too often leans into the darker parts of her persona - her insecurities, bitterness, and frustration, to make her memoir a rewarding use of your time. 

The absence of levity to cut the acidity of Grey’s dating struggles is the book’s main failing. As a meditation on being thrust into singledom in middle age, there was an interesting story to tell, like the complex web of norms that now attend texting, email, and first dates, and this information occasionally leaks out, but mostly, Grey is pissy - she gets pissy with guys who call her out for lying about her age, she gets pissy with guys who call her out for her weight, she gets pissy with guys who do not respond to her advances, and she gets pissy with guys who do, but then decide not to pursue her further. In Grey’s world, the villains are the men rejecting her, either because they are trolling for shinier, younger (less cynical) versions of her or miss her unique charms. In this, her lament becomes the fun house mirror version of “nice guys” complaining women are not interested in them. 

To her credit, Grey shows the seductiveness and the limitation of online dating. The computer screen (and to a lesser degree the mobile phone) is Grey’s security blanket but over and over she foists herself on her own electronic petard. Offered the opportunity to meet men in real life, she gets annoyed if they won’t engage in lengthy pre-meeting email exchanges. On the other hand, she relishes the safety and sterility of electronic back and forth while cringing at the face-to-face experience. It is almost like she wants to fail or, possibly, fears the rejection she experiences on at least one occasion when flirty online exchanges fizzle in real life due (according to her) to her intended’s disappointment in her appearance. 

Of course, Grey turns a blind eye to the shortcomings others may see - she unabashedly drinks excessively, rarely mentions anything approaching exercise, and leans into the same type of criticism of physical appearance in others she bemoans when applied to her. But those are straw men (or is it straw women?) arguments that are easy for her to knock down but do not offer much in the way of insight. And the black box of how her own marriage ended, under what circumstances, and what emotional fall out she experienced is largely missing - yet it is unquestionably a HUGE piece of the puzzle and its absence makes the book’s center seem particularly hollow.

In a moment of introspection, she refers to herself as a “sad middle-aged woman who had the temerity to need love.” And there it is - and if there was more of this vulnerability and less a screed against men she puts into one of two buckets — men who want a no hassle relationship or men who consume too much pornography — perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic toward her cause. Instead, it is page after page of pointless message arguments with strangers over whether to swap surnames or phone numbers when she can not even get to a first meeting and feels far more comfortable with electronic pen pals. Grey directs her blame outward to men who do not fancy her but at the same time does little to indicate personal growth. 

Long into the book she begins chatting with a man named Andrew who she meets at a coffee shop and immediately invests in - practicing salsa dancing in her home (he mentioned he likes it), researching the local gym he attends, and parsing his comments with the skill of a Talmudic scholar, only to find out that he does not even know her name and their interactions, pregnant with potential to her, are just a time waster for him while he avoids doing work. It is heart breaking but also head shaking. Grey engages in the type of behavior that were she a man we would immediately read as creepy, desperate, and possibly a bit stalkerish, but we are supposed to find this quirky, endearing, and normal? 

And just when all hope seems lost, when Grey is in the process of deleting her fourteen (!) dating website profiles, “Edward” pops up on one of the sites, they fall in love and live happily ever after. I shit you not. If it all seems too pat, too convenient, too made-for-Hollywood, you would not be alone in that assessment. After all, the blurb on the cover touts this dumpster fire as a “Bridget Jones For The Internet Age.” What good would publishing such a book be if the heroine ended up drowning her sorrows at the bottom of a wine bottle? And the happily-ever-after ending also puts the bulk of the book in a much different light. Instead of it standing as a cautionary tale about attempting to date in middle age, with all the associated pitfalls and disappointments, Mid-Life becomes a story of perseverance and faith, that you too can find love (just around the corner in fact!) if you are willing to muddle through myriad bad dates, rookie mistakes, and your own insecurities. I’m not buying it, am glad I didn’t (I checked it out for free from my public library), and neither should you. 


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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Varys -- Double Agent?

HBO wrapped the sixth season of Game of Thrones with a commanding image of Daenerys, her retinue of advisors and a massive armada steaming for Westeros. It was an impressive sight made all the more so by an alliance cemented by Varys in the waning moments of The Winds of Winter that brought the Dornish and the Queen of Thorns (House Tyrell) into the fold.

But what if instead of collecting what passes for a Westerosi version of the super friends, Varys was actually engaging in a deeper game on behalf of Queen Cersei? Judging from the first three episodes of Season Seven, the possibility of a mole within Dany’s circle may be the Occam’s Razor for why she is now, as The Ringer crew put it, in danger of becoming GoT’s 2016 Golden State Warriors – blowing a 3-1 lead to an inferior opponent.

Consider Dany’s military plan to conquer Westeros. It called for the siege of King’s Landing by the Dornish and Tyrells, with the Unsullied storming Casterly Rock to cut off a potential route of retreat for the Lannister army. It all made sense until Euron destroyed Dany’s fleet and captured Ellaria and Yara, Cersei sacrificed Casterly Rock (strategically unimportant) and moved her troops on Highgarden instead, not only snuffing out the Tyrell army but looting its gold to pay off the throne’s debt to the Iron Bank.

While it is possible that Jaime and Euron are military geniuses and Tyrion a fool, in this show, so pregnant with deceit and double-dealing, Varys’s position within Dany’s small council points to a different solution. After all, if Varys was working for Cersei, she could not ask for anything more than having all her enemies huddled under one tent to then be picked off one by one with inside intel on their military plans. Not only would the destruction of old houses allow her to insert new leadership beholden to her (see, Randall Tarly) but would make her rule unquestioned, with no enemies (or dragons) to deal with.

Dany sensed this in her tense back-and-forth with Varys, ticking off his prior betrayals and putting to him the question of why she should trust him. His “I choose you” declaration sounded sincere but for a show that fetishizes the idea of a man’s “word” having great value, the successful players of the game deftly sense when their allegiance should sway in order to move up the ladder. Indeed, with Little Finger ensconced in Winterfell with the Knights of the Vale at his command and always one for a heel turn when it suits his purposes, he could deliver Sansa to Cersei and be richly rewarded even as Jon is now marooned at Dragonstone – the walls of the Resistance could crumble before they even had a chance to form.

And while unsatisfying to those who see Cersei as a cruel and evil woman, it would not be at all inconsistent with either the show or the books’ idea that “good” men and women do not always triumph in this world. Indeed, it is often those who are willing to assert their power, regardless of who is killed in service of the wielding of that power, that triumph. Of course, this could also just be a massive head fake to stretch the drama, this is television after all.


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