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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Death of Stringer Bell

I have been binge-watching The Wire lately. Just got to Season 3, Episode 11, which ends with the killing of Stringer Bell at the hands of Omar and Brother Mouzone, two killers with their codes of conduct.

Even as a show renowned for its gritty realism, the makers could not help a bit of romanticism. In the empty house, Omar in a trench coat strolled through the door, shotgun in hand. A couple of pigeons flapped around him. Hehe, anyone familiar with the gangster genre would recognize an homage to John Woo. The connection here is no accident --- George Pelecanos, the DC crime novelist and writer of this episode, was involved in importing Woo's Hong Kong movie The Killer into the US in early 1990s. The movie caused a bit of a sensation in the cinematic circles and created a sizable cult following of the sub-sub-genre of HK gangster films that included Martin Scorsese.

And then, before his execution, Bell argued weakly that he was no longer in the criminal world and on his way to becoming a legit businessman. Then they shot him. This bit could very well be a nod to the famous climax in "Unforgiven" --- Gene Hackman exclaimed, "I'm not supposed to die like this. I'm building a house!" before Clint Eastwood shot him. Indeed, Stringer Bell was also a building a house, and had his sight on building a few more houses around Baltimore. It was his American Dream.

I can see why The Wire is considered possibly the best American TV series ever. I think the writing greatly benefited from Pelecanos' involvement starting in Season 2, which brought the plotting and characterization up a few notches from Season 1 while maintaining the gritty realism of David Simon and Ed Burns. Still, the series suffer a little from a few weaknesses inherited from Season 1, particularly the unfocused characterization of Avon Barksdale. Unfortunately Wood Harris, who played Barksdale, was one of the weaker actors in an otherwise strong cast. I can see the intention in the portrayal of the relationship between Bell and Barksdale, but I don't feel it. It does not hit me in the gut like many of the other characters in the series.

Cutty (played by Chad Coleman), on the other hand, is perfectly cast. Every time he is on screen I would feel a quiver in my stomach. The character is an archetypal man straight out of Pelecanosville, and Coleman conveys every bit of that with a mere look.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

To Go Forward You Must Go Back

I was re-reading A Dance With Dragons out of order. Eventually I got to Jon Snow's viewpoint chapters, which are the least interesting part to me. But it proved necessary. About half way through these chapters, the pattern became unmistakable. I checked the eBook table of contents --- Indeed, the Jon chapters are almost always adjacent to Daenerys chapters with one exception. 

When George RR Martin split a planned Book 5 into A Feast for Crows and ADWD, the viewpoint chapters were not randomly arranged. Besides the obvious plot chronology issues, the close proximity of Jon and Daenerys chapters is no accident. The evolution of these two characters mirror each other in ADWD, and their paths echo Quaithe's prophecy to Dany --- "To go forward you must go back." 

For both characters, they seem to be going forward during most of the novel, albeit with great difficulty. At the Wall, Jon faces the demands from Stannis to support his campaign, internal strives with Bowen Marsh and other Night's Watch members, and the external threat from the Others and their wights. More important, he is torn between his own conflicts: To remain loyal to the Night's Watch as the 998th Lord Commander, or to heed Stannis' offer to become Lord of Winterfell and join the battle against the Boltons. In Meereen, Dany is pressed by enemies outside and within the city walls and torn between her duty to the people and her personal desires. Her internal conflicts are externalized as the chained dragons, Viserion and Rhaegal, who represents her wildness and aggression, just like Ghost represents Jon's. Both are able to temporarily restrain their wild, animalistic, and (possibly) lethal aspect of their nature and to stay human and civilized. 

The conventional arc is a journey of taming one's wildness and animal instincts and becoming a social being. In the end, the hero grows from an unattached individual to a leader of men and a member of society. However, here the journey seems to be take a sharp turn, at least in ADWD. By the end both Jon and Dany burst out of their "human" form and morph into their animal avatars --- Dany is spiritually merged with the biggest, baddest Drogon, and Jon enters Ghost after his human death. 

Before they reach this end, however, both also retrace their steps to the past. This is why the imagery of the "red doors" in Dany's memory dominated her thoughts and Jon is constantly reminded of his family and Winterfell throughout the novel. Dany's second burning in the fighting pit echoes her first burning in A Game of Thrones, and afterward in her wandering she is back in the Dorthraki Sea. Her adventures eastward has led her back, and the curse laid down 4 books ago is now reversed. Meanwhile at the Wall, Jon finally openly abandons his vow and the Night's Watch and chooses his family (ie, to rescue what he believes to be Arya) over Night's Watch. Both characters have come a full circle to where they started. 

This may seem contrary to the convention of the genre, but let's not forget that The Lord of the Ring trilogy is ended with a return to the Shire, and the Hero's Journey also concludes with his return to home. Of course, in those cases, the heroes return after victory rather than frustration or defeat. This is why it's so hard to predict where GRRM is taking the characters and the plot. 

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