Bells, Runways, Stark Reunions, and Love Scenes

Nearly all of us, whether in television or in a movie, have watched a situation in which two actresses are running lines from a love scene, and after uttering professions of passion, devotion, and everlasting fidelity, one or both of them will collapse into laughter. Shaking her head, and finally catching her breath after her fit of giggling, she wonders what sort of imbecile can write such nonsense and how they can possibly recite such drivel in front of an audience without ruining their careers. I remember one scene just like this from one of the later seasons of Mad Men in which Don Draper’s second wife, an aspiring actress, mocks the pages she’s been sent and despairs of ever performing anything so ridiculous?

Going through these derided scenes, word by word, line by line, what exactly is so terrible? Show, don’t tell is one of the few really useful maxims applied to writing, so are these passages are full of adjectives like: steely, piercing, ravishing, or irresistible. No, in the instance just mentioned and most others, the prose is quite lean. Furthermore, there are no obvious solecisms or mistakes in usage. Then what is it that is so mediocre or contemptible in these scenes that the actresses shudder to perform them? In every case, the scene is read all by itself, and it consists of two names, names without faces, names of complete strangers, names that don’t bear the weight of any regret, pain, loss, or confusion. These two phantoms sigh out their passion, swear to be true forever, weep to be parted, and every word of it is dreary.

Tender love scenes, sweet reunions, and anguished partings don’t twist and tear our hearts because of the beauty and precision of the language. There are no insights into the human condition, no observations on love, no profound wisdom in what the characters are saying. Nothing needs to be said. When Jon Snow walks out and sees Sansa Stark standing in the courtyard, he rushes down the stairs and she runs to him, throwing herself in his arms. As Jon picks up his sister and holds her, grown men and their less stoic wives and girlfriends alike weep together. We are so deeply moved by what is happening only because what has already happened. We have seen these two mocked, held captive, manipulated, beaten, stabbed, fleeing from certain death. We have seen them suffer so much that if they somehow live, they may survive but they can never again find happiness. That hug lasts for only a few seconds. It takes fifty some hours of superb storytelling to buy those few seconds.

A story needs to build up an enormous emotional charge to allow such a huge, and yet brief release. That flash of joy is the result of hours of despair, fatigue, pain, grief, loss, regret, and every other shadow that has ever darkened the human soul. Has anything ever been more silly and mawkish than the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life? It should be laughable but instead it’s devastating. That ending exhilarates us because of the dark story that’s just unfolded. The film has its lighter moments, high school seniors jump into a swimming pool, Donna Reed huddles naked in a bush, Sam Wainwright can’t refrain from incessantly blatting ‘hee-haw’.

Yet there is far more darkness than light, and the most frivolous and light-hearted moments are haunted by death. One moment, George is holding an empty bathrobe, relishing a very interesting situation, the next he’s rushing to his father’s deathbed. One moment, children are sledding on a hill, the next one of them nearly drowns in an icy pond. We sometimes forget that a grief-stricken pharmacist nearly poisons innocent children. We forget George Bailey shaking his uncle by the collar, berating him, shrieking about prison and ruin and scandal. We forget George’s smoldering resentment, his dreams relinquished for the sake of a town remarkable only for its ingratitude, a town that George both loves and hates. Frank Capra’s shading is impeccable. He can’t make Bedford Falls into a Gomorrah but he makes sure that there are almost no profusions of gratitude to take away from the ending. George gives up college to run the Building and Loan and the sacrifice is mentioned only right before he’s called upon to make a second terrible sacrifice. He gives away the money for his honeymoon to once again save the Building and Loan, and the depositors seem quite pleased by the deliverance, but they don’t bother to thank their deliverer. Capra doesn’t want to make his characters monsters of ingratitude, and Martini and Gower are sincerely grateful and loyal to George, but he’s sparing with the appreciation holding nearly everything back for the ending. Because It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about poverty and loss, dreams deferred and then destroyed, that beautiful ending is overwhelming.

Think back to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing on the runway as the propellers that will carry her away forever splutter to life behind them. The words he speaks, by themselves are quite ordinary, and if read aloud by someone who’d knew nothing about the movie, they’d seem unremarkable.

Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true.  Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor.  You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.  If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with it you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Ilsa: What about us?

Rick: We’ll always have Paris.  We didn’t have-we lost it-we lost it until you came to Casablanca.  We got it back last night.

Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you…

Rick: And you never will.  I’ve got a job to do too.  Where I’m going, you can’t follow.  What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.   I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Someday you’ll understand that.  Not now.  Here’s looking at you kid.    

These words are meaningful because of the themes of duty, sacrifice, and the clash of good and evil so masterfully evoked in what has come before. Their idyllic yet perhaps selfish tryst in Paris, the figure of Victor Laslow, the Marsellaise out-throating Die Wacht am Rhein in the cafe. Every line, every image, every scene has led up to this goodbye. Two people who love one another, and whom we love, must give up their lives together and their happiness to do the right thing.

As a fan of Joss Whedon, I can’t help but close with Buffy and Angel. We have seen Buffy and Angel fight together and fight one another. We have seen her run a sword through him and hurl him into hell to save the world. Every great joke, every brilliant line, every superb scene from the first episode to this, has brought them closer and closer together, and bonded us to them as well. That narrative momentum makes the simplest declarations of love heart-rending.

Angel: No matter what, I’ll always be with you.

Buffy: How am I supposed to go on with my life, knowing what we had, what we could have had?

Buffy: I felt your heart beat.

Angel: I love you.

Buffy: I love you.

Angel: Nothing will ever change that.  Not even death.

The words themselves are short, often used, and unremarkable. The sentences are simple, with none of the mirroring, balancing or antitheses of the rhetorical arts. But these words are now imbued with an immense force, and all Joss Whedon must do is not to ruin the effect he’s labored season after season to create. It may seem a thankless chore that it costs him thousands and thousands of words carefully chosen and perfectly arranged to make a few dozen resound, but these fleeting outpourings of grief or joy are earned only by hard work, sweat, and pages and pages of stupendous story-telling. Joss Whedon’s a writer and that’s the price every writer must pay, but I’m sure he feels such moments are worth that price.

X Men, Avengers, and Titus Pullo

In the 2016 film X Men Apocalypse, the villain, actually named Apocalypse, recruits a cadre of disgruntled mutants to destroy the world. As anyone may guess, the X Men set out to stop him and there follows a climactic battle between disgruntled and gruntled mutants. Apocalypse is enormously powerful, as are the mutants arrayed against him, and he easily disposed of the world’s nuclear arsenals and then nearly wipes out all life on the planet. This plot has become a familiar one, but this movie in question is a particularly blatant example. The scale and the stakes involved are ramped up to the highest level possible. The issue is the eradication of all life on the planet, and yet the struggle is kept between the two parties of mutants alone. Despite facing their own extinction, none of the leaders, governments, or armies of humankind take any part in the fight, and stopping Apocalypse is left to the superheroes. Everybody who isn’t enhanced is strangely and unpardonably passive throughout. This passivity shows itself in the X Men and the Avengers movies, and it has become one of the principal features of the whole genre. These movies make it clear that ordinary humans are hopelessly overmatched and it’s best for everyone that the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies stay out of the fray and leave the work to beneficent superhumans.

In the final acts of these films, the laws, courts, governments, and armies of mankind disappear for all narrative purposes, while the demigods fight it out. The stage is emptied of everything except famous monuments which are left to be wrecked in computer generated spectacles. This void is conspicuous and it precludes any interactions between the superheroes and their ordinary allies. The series of Marvel comics shows on Netflix seem aware of this drawback and they try to avoid setting their final acts in a global vacuum. To keep some sort of context, they’ve scaled back the scope of the conflict and the stakes involved. The amphitheater is now one neighborhood in New York rather than the entire globe, and the villains aren’t out to destroy the world. Kingpin wants to run Hell’s Kitchen, not unleash Armageddon. KIllgrave wants to eat at fancy restaurants and play house with Jessica Jones. This allows the show writers to keep the institutions, players, and settings of ordinary life: courts, politicians, lawyers, journalists, prions, and they all can play an integral role in the story, which can then be more complex and be made up of more moving parts. Kingpin’s empire is threatened by a newspaper reporter. Jessica Jones can’t simply assassinate Killgrave because she needs to exculpate the girl he made kill her own parents. Netflix has cut down the stories and made them smaller, but by doing so, they can tell stories where crooked politicians, district attorneys, cops, journalists, and lawyers can be prominent in the action. The whole world doesn’t need to vanish during the final act, and the ending can unfold in the same world we ourselves inhabit.

This restriction in scale seems to be worth the sacrifice if the payoff is a more complex and interesting narrative. Yet is the reduction really necessary? Must the setting become parochial, and the struggle lessened in its importance? Can’t a larger superhero story keep its human context and not become a saga of titans battling in an empty firmament? There is an approach that will achieve all of this but the narrative vehicle isn’t found in comics but instead in the HBO series Rome. Like Matt Murdoch and Jessica Jones, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are formidable without being invulnerable or all-powerful. Yet the actions is spread over a wider scene, and Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony are fighting for control of the entire known world. And like their Marvel counterparts, they must contend with rules, laws, and figures of authority. And like their Marvel counterparts, they’re citizens rather than demigods. Matt Murdoch went to university, took and passed the bar exam, argues cases in a court of law, rents offices in one building an apartment in another. Jessica Jones is arrested by the police and is held pending trial. They have Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit histories, bank accounts, and the myriad other connections with the organizations and institutions of the modern world.

Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are members of the Thirteenth Legion, and as such they are subject to military discipline and regulations. On the social ladder, they sit near the bottom and they are far below many of the other characters. Not only in their dealings with Julius Caesar, but even in interactions with lesser characters, they must remain deferential and obedient. Dangerous men and capable killers, they are nevertheless figures of little importance. In the very first episode, they come to the rescue of a very creepy Octavian, a boy with the mind of Tywin Lannister in the body of Joffrey, winning themselves the gratitude and patronage of his reptilian mother, Atia who herself closely resembles Cersei. When taken out of the urban setting and marooned in the wilderness, these constraints of caste and birth are removed. Pompey is surpassingly and unquestionably their social superior, but far from Rome, away from its mores and its laws, acting on their own, they kill his captors and set him free. Yet once they return to the world and report back to Caesar, they must confess their effrontery in taking it upon themselves to save and then release his archrival and suffer the consequences. In their lowly station, they must be humble and biddable, doing as Atia bids and defying her only at the behest of someone yet more powerful than she.

Not only must they obey their aristocratic betters, the two men are also at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are. Vorenus follows Mark Anthony out of duty but he’s incapable of deciding or even of significantly influencing their shared fate. He sees his leader giving way to dissipation, losing his fighting skills, and leading them both down a path that will end in their death but he’s powerless to do anything about it. He doesn’t have the rank or the power to alter the outcome and he can only keep his word and faithfully attend his master as Anthony sets about getting them both killed. Neither he nor Pullo are in control and they’re borne along by irresistible tides of history and destiny. They aren’t strong enough to save the world all on their own.

 

They’re not simply spectators, but they’re also actors in the greatest events of their time. They stand at the elbow of the high and mighty, and they are pulled into the biggest happenings of their age. In this respect, they’re much like Forrest Gump. Like the affable Alabaman, they’re in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’re in the thick of things as history is made all around them. They encounter and serve JFK, John Lennon, LBJ, Elvis, Octavian, Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey. Rome shows us both ends of the social spectrum, queens, imperators, and consuls, and their lowborn bodyguards and assassins.

One of the earlier episodes is entitled “How Titus Pullo brought down the Republic” and it recounts how one small action of Pullo’s has enormous repercussions. Pullo didn’t set out to bring down the Republic but he inadvertently touches of a series of events that change the world forever. He doesn’t turn the course of history because he has godlike powers, but through the butterfly effect. One step leads to a cascade of mistakes, chances, and accidents which results in the collapse of the Republic. This was one deed of one small actor among many, rather than the colossal heroics of a tiny number of nearly omnipotent saviors. Titus Pullo inadvertently destroyed a system of government, and in much the same manner a protagonist might save a life, avert a disaster, or diffuse a crisis and end up saving a country or the world.

Rome HBO DVD Polly Walker Kerry Condon Kevin McKidd Ray Stevenson James Purefoy

Tyrion Lannister and three other Silenuses

For most who watch Game of Thrones or read the books, Tyrion Lannister is their favorite character. A dwarf, with a jutting forehead, a squashed in face, and mismatched eyes, Tyrion is often disliked or mistrusted by the other characters because of his ugliness. George R. R. Martin does everything he can to sharpen the contrast between the hideous face and the great mind behind it. In much the same manner, Plato wrote of Socrates in The Symposium:

I shall try in this way, men, to praise Socrates, through likenesses. Now he perhaps will think it’s for raising a laugh; but the likeness will be for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of the laughable. I declare that he is most strictly like those silenuses that sit in the shops of herm sculptors, the ones that craftsmen make holding reed pipes or flutes: and if they are split apart and opened up, they show that they have images of gods within. And I declare, in turn, that he bears a likeness to the satyr Marsyas. Now, that you are like them at least in looks, Socrates, surely not even you would dispute;

Like Tyrion, Socrates was remarkably ugly, and if we are compiling a list of great men with unsightly faces we must not omit Abraham Lincoln or Henry of Navarre. Lincoln characterized himself as the homeliest man in Illinois, and Henry was the ugliest man in the French court. All these men have come to be revered for their wisdom and compassion. When the generals had returned to Athens from the Battle of Arginusae and were going to be put on trial for the lives lost, Socrates serving as president of the assembly for the first and only time in his life, stood against everyone and refused to put the measure to a vote, and the generals were unconstitutionally and illegally tried and executed in spite of his opposition. Lincoln was famous for pardoning deserters who were to be shot, and Henry went so far as to pardon men who’d just tried to assassinate him.

The four men are also alike in being unfortunate in their marriages. Xanthippe is reported to have been a termagant. Neither Socrates nor his wife ever wrote anything down, but Plato and Xenophon wrote a great deal about them and the picture handed down is of Socrates as the patient, afflicted husband and Xanthippe as the shrew. The Greeks believed that a good wife should be submissive and perhaps Xanthippe was merely forthright and independent but she’ll never get to tell her side of the story.

We know a great deal more about Mary Todd Lincoln and while we must feel pity for a woman coping with mental illness and suffering the loss of a child, her fits of rage and prodigal spending were hard to bear.

Tyrion so repulsed his second wife, Sansa, that, too proud to endure her revulsion and too kind to force her to submit to a touch she found so distasteful, he gallantly forewent his conjugal rights. Despite his intellect, wit, wealth and station, he’s always been denied any female affection or intimacy. Never knowing the tenderness of a mother, sister, or lover, he’s always resorted to prostitutes.

Henry became estranged from both his wives, and Marguerite of Valois and Marie de’ Medici hated him in the end, but he was a faithless husband and the fault was his own. An enthusiastic, in fact a compulsive philanderer, he adored beauty and many of the most ravishing women in France welcomed him in their beds. Even if he were not a king, it’s hard to believe that a man with his wit and charisma would stay lonely for long.

Socrates, the ugliest man in Athens was pursued by Alcibiades, the most beautiful man in Athens. In another part of the Symposium, Alcibiades tells of his flagrant yet unsuccessful attempts to seduce Socrates. The other Silenuses found love, and it’s hard to believe that some woman won’t come to love Tyrion for his wisdom and kindness and see past his grotesque appearance. Perhaps Sansa will come to appreciate him for the man he is and they will reunite to live as man and wife. Millions across the world fervently wish for Tyrion to find the love and happiness he so richly deserves.

There is one respect in which Tyrion is very different from the other three men. Socrates, Lincoln, and Henry all enjoyed good health and were gifted with great bodily strength. In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail splitter and legends abound testifying to the tremendous strength of his long arms. Socrates was famed for his indifference to cold and fatigue, and it is said that he never became drunk no matter how much wine he drank. It is difficult to credit that he was unaffected by alcohol, but his vitality and endurance were obviously exceptional. Henry was renowned both for his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In contrast, Tyrion’s stunted body brings him terrible pain and he walks long distances and climbs stairs only with great difficulty and discomfort.

As we review the great benefactors of mankind down through the ages, not all the saints and sages of history are physically repulsive. Galileo, Ashoka, FDR, Pasteur, Hillel, and many others are unexceptional in looks and indeed some are quite handsome. Yet as a rhetorical species, we delight in paradox and antithesis, and for this reason were fascinated by the idea of a Silenus, a twisted, grotesque figure hiding something wondrous and divine within.

Why it was Sansa Stark who won the Battle of the Bastards

Sansa Stark has been criticized for her conduct leading up to the battle fought between an army of Free Folk and the forces of House Bolton, commonly known as the Battle of the Bastards. The action is named in honor of the opposing commanders, natural sons of Ned Stark and Roose Bolton respectively, but it is the timely intervention of Sansa Stark that decided the outcome. This is the most highly rated and regarded episode of an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous and inescapable, television show and the events are well known to most. The Stark forces were outnumbered, but having no choice, they fought a larger, better equipped, and better trained army to retake the northern fortress of Winterfell, ancestral seat of House Stark. Jon Snow accepted battle on these unfavorable terms because he believed he had no other choice. Sansa, however, did have recourse to a large contingent of heavy cavalry, the knights of the Vale. She said nothing of this, and Jon went into the struggle with nothing but his outmatched Wildling infantry, many of whom perished in the fighting.

It’s thought that her silence lead to the unnecessary deaths of many of these brave Free Folk, and that if she’d told Jon the truth, she could have saved many lives. Why did she keep the coming of these allies to herself? Although she must have sent for them much earlier, she may not have known if they were going to come. She had to trust the treacherous Littlefinger, a man who’d betrayed her and her family in the past, to act as her envoy. Will they arrive in time? Will they come at all? If he does bring these troops, on whose side will they fight? It was Littlefinger who suggested using these knights against the Boltons, mentioning the possibility of such a step during their chilly encounter at Molestown. It was Littlefinger again who convinced Sweetrobin to join Sansa’s cause. It is unlikely that Sansa was certain of these knights joining them, and that mentioning such a hope to Jon and the rest only to have it disappointed would be ruinous for their already shaky morale. This is a generous construction and not at all improbable but I’m going to assume the opposite. I’m going to assume that Sansa was certain but that she didn’t trust Jon with that knowledge. I’m going to assume that she hid the imminent advent of the cavalry Jon so desperately needed.

How would Jon have reacted to these tidings? He would certainly be cheered. He would have waited and later confronted the Bolton army on terms of parity, or perhaps even superiority. He wouldn’t have sent his meagre force of infantry into a fight it couldn’t possibly have won. And that is precisely what he needed to do if they are to destroy the Bolton army and retake Winterfell. If they had assembled their combined host of Wildling infantry and Vale cavalry, the accession of the knights of the Vale to the Stark army would no longer be a surprise. Ramsay would have altered his dispositions, or more likely, refused battle and retreated into the fortress. Afterwards, the Free Folk and their giant were able to breach the gate and take the castle because it had already been denuded of its garrison. If Winterfell were fully manned and properly prepared, any assault was unlikely to succeed, and an army with no provisions, hungry and already close to starving, cannot undertake a siege. Mance Rayder had an enormous host and several giants, but he was repulsed in his attack on Castle Black. To recapture Winterfell, the Starks must destroy the Bolton forces in the field. They need an overwhelming battlefield victory.

How do you win an overwhelming battlefield victory if your men and resources are about equal to those of your enemy? Throughout history, the great captains have won their signature victories by thinning their ranks in some places to strengthen their reserves. The fight is joined, and these weak spots have bent but not broken. Great battlefield commanders are gifted with the coup d’oeil (it should be noted that this is a French term), an ability to watch a group of men fighting for their lives and tell, even from a distance, whether they will hold or if they are about to break and run. They may feel betrayed, they may fall, but so long as they keep fighting, that doesn’t matter. Their leader sacrifices their lives to win the battle. No one likes to fight against impossible odds. The leader of these overmatched forces will plead for help. He will beg for reinforcements. These pleas must be ignored. To lead men into battle, you must be willing to let them die. This is cold; this is hard; but that’s the price that must be paid. Many Free Folk died in the Battle of the Bastards but they didn’t die because Sansa kept it a secret that they were soon to be joined by a troop of heavy cavalry. They died because they fought a battle against a large, well-armed, and well trained, force of experienced professional soldiers. Sansa kept her secret and because she did, that enemy force was annihilated.

Most battles are won by the side that can pitch in the last reserve. This means that this reserve must be held back until the very end. At Austerlitz, Napoleon weakened his right flank, and although his men were under terrible pressure, facing onslaught after onslaught, he waited until the enemy moved their troops off the Pratzen Heights in the center to join those attacks. Only after the enemy had thrown their last reserve troops into the fight, did he strike his final blow. The timing is everything. Had he launched his assault against the center too soon, there would be troops still present to meet and repel the attack. Had he waited too long, the overburdened right would have given way and he would have lost the battle before he could put in the killing stroke.

At the Battle of Issus, Alexander and his best cavalry were deployed on the right wing, and Parmenio was assigned auxiliary troops to hold the left wing against the Persians who were far superior in numbers and quality. The Persians hit Parmenio again and again, and his wing was pushed back. His Thessalian auxiliaries gave ground as more and more of their number were cut down. They bent but they didn’t break. They fought and died to buy Alexander time, and he used that opportunity to unleash his own charge on the other end of the field, and this charge frightened Darius into fleeing and won the battle. Were they happy? They won the day but they must have felt aggrieved that their lives were treated as a commodity to be bartered for a foreign king’s triumph.

When the Army of the Potomac was coming against him in overwhelming strength, Lee broke up his own army into pieces. The smallest of these pieces was given to Jubal Early to hold off Union forces much stronger than his own. He was given a fight he couldn’t win but he wasn’t supposed to win. His defeat was inevitable but he must make sure that he fights long enough for Lee to win a much larger battle miles to the west. A thankless job to be sent into a certain defeat, but the greater victory is impossible without this sacrifice. The Confederates lost the minor Second Battle of Fredericksburg, but won the Battle of Chancellorsville and that decided the entire campaign.

The knights of the Vale mounted their charge only after the Bolton army had surrounded the Wildlings and were crushing the life out of them. The Wildlings had fought valiantly, but the arms, the weight, and the discipline of their foes were too great. The Bolton men interlocked their shields, couched their spears and advanced in an impenetrable shield wall. The Wildlings heedlessly and savagely rushed the enemy trying to break through, but not even Wun Wun could shatter their formation. Ramsay threw everything into the fight, holding nothing back, and all his men were committed, and that is when the knights of the Vale were unleashed. As far as timing goes, the moment was perfect. The Bolton deployment was much like a Macedonian phalanx, and at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Macedonian phalanx was slaughtered when Roman legionaries managed to get in behind them. It was just the same for the Bolton army. When the wave of heavy cavalry hit them, their entire army was swept away. The Free Folk suffered losses but the Bolton men were nearly extirpated.

 

Am I saying that Sansa Stark is a superb battlefield commander, like Caesar, Frederick the Great, or the Duke of Marlborough? I like the girl and take up cudgels to defend her, but I won’t make such a ridiculous claim. It’s clear that while Arya reads about Nymeria and Visenya Targaryen, Sansa reads about Jonquil with flowers in her hair. But it wouldn’t be out of character for Littlefinger to have familiarized himself with battlefield tactics in his reading. Maybe the knights had been on the march throughout and entered the fray as soon as they came up. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or inadvertent, things could not have worked out better for the Starks. The Free Folk suffered and died on the field, but most of them survived to fight again in the wars to come, and it was their enemies who perished nearly to a man. It was Sansa who called on the knights of the Vale; it was Sansa who won the battle; and it was Sansa who retook Winterfell.