Goodbye to Santa Fe

This portrait of my daughter and me is entitled Dynasty:

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You can do this when you live in Santa Fe. The iron throne was at the 200-year-old mall down the street from my favorite bar, near where I work. George R.R. Martin owns a movie theater in the neighborhood. (The Jean Cocteau. I love that theater. I will always remember watching Memento there with my dad in 2000.)

Martin was my neighbor. A few days before my family moved to Mexico, I saw him walking to the park. His Song of Ice and Fire books will always be bigger and better than the Game of Thrones TV show. If you are writing about the show on the internet without reading the source material, then you are an incurious hack and an anti-expert. The story is all gods.

Santa Fe, to me, is mind-blowing artwork, an annual January flood of evil politicians and suck-up lobbyists, breakfast burritos at El Chile Torreado, insanely good beer, the Cathedral, The Plaza, George R.R. Martin, and this blog.

This is my last post. There may a Flip Side in San Pancho in the future, but I have other things I want to write right now. It’s been fun, and thanks to everyone who’s been reading. Counting hits got addictive.

I miss Santa Fe, but we wanted to move.

Good luck Mr. Martin. And thank you for signing my shirt. I wear it often.

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Remember “The Wire”

It will probably be “The Wire” forever, no matter what we think right now.

Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone “After three astounding seasons in a row, one thing is for sure: Mad Men is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

My favorite writer Chuck Klosterman wrote on Grantland.com that the best four shows of the modern TV-drama golden age are “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men.” “I’ve slowly coming to the conclusion that Breaking Bad is the best of the four,” Klosterman says, “or at least the one I like the most.”

My opinion on this is strongly held, but I think I can back it up.

The first question to answer is, How do these shows work? I see two types:

1) “Game of Thrones” kills a bunch of main characters and we’re shocked. Then comes the realization that the story rules, and there is no mercy in this dark, painful “Game of Thrones” universe. “Lost” is similar, even if it seemed at the end to be about Jack.

2) “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “The Sopranos” have this amazing central player we invest in. The main character is fascinating, and from that starting point we meet other characters in his life and become interested in them, too.

“The Wire” fit both these types.

If I had to describe “The Wire” very simply, I guess I would say it’s about every level of the Baltimore drug trade, with multiple interesting characters at each level: young hoppers, corner kids, soldiers, kingpins, beat cops, detectives, captains, lieutenants, deputies of special operations, police commissioners, district attorneys, state legislators, mayor.

I don’t know who the main character is. In fact, the notion of “main character” doesn’t apply. When Dookie walked into that drug alley at the end of the last season, my heart broke. They’d written that poor kid in a way that made me love him. He had friends and adults who cared about him, but his slow descent into a junkie made tragic sense as it was happening.

I felt so strongly about Dookie in that moment, and I don’t think he’s even in my Top 10 of favorite characters on that show. Let’s see: Marlo, Omar, McNulty, Stringer, Bunk, Avon, Michael, Snoop, Bodie. . . . Hmm. . . Maybe he’d make the last spot over Daniels, Herc and Carver (package deal), Bunny, Carcetti, Prop Joe., Sobatka, Sen. Clay “Sheeeit” Davis. But probably not.

Dookie made me want to cry, and he wasn’t even in the Top 15 of best characters.

These guys were awesome. Let’s consider Bunk for a second. These are the two best Bunk scenes:

1) McNulty has to come pick Bunk up from a woman’s house because Bunk’s so drunk he lit his clothes on fire in the woman’s bathtub, setting off a smoke alarm. McNulty finds him sitting on the toilet, snoring, with a cigar in his mouth. He’s wearing a small pink bathrobe and a tie. No shirt. tumblr_lhayw3QIc01qfeqsqo1_500(Bunk’s kinda fat.) “You smell pussy?” he grunts. “Teresa ain’t have, ain’t gonna have shit on The Bunk.” And then: “You gimme that pussy and then you gonna and take muh shoes? Ruh. That ain’t right. Damn.”

2) Bunk passionately tells Omar “I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was. We had some bad boys for real. . . . As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory mother fuckers like you. And out where that girl fell I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. It makes me sick, mother fucker, how far we done fell.”

Hilarious in one episode, deadly serious in the next. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are hilarious and serious, too, but not to this extent. He calls himself “The Bunk.” Then he’s talking about the impact of drugs and guns on children and the community.

Moving on. . . .

It took an intricate plot to weave all these characters together, and everything on “The Wire” fit. In the second season, with the stevedores (dock workers), we watched Sobatka’s cocky son Ziggy getting teased by the other stevedores. Ziggy’s dipping his toe into crime, and that seems relevant as it’s happening. But the teasing (“Love child!”) doesn’t feel important like everything else that’s going on. Then there’s a late-season episode when he gets bullied as he’s selling some stuff he stole. Because of all Ziggy’s been through with the jerks at work, he snaps. He shoots up a warehouse, which becomes a crime scene, which destroys the entire Baltimore Police investigation we’ve been watching Daniels lead that whole time. Which means this, which means that. Every character fits within the chain of crazy events.

You know how we go nuts when main characters get killed? Ziggy shooting up that warehouse felt the same way, even though we barely knew the victims. Ziggy shooting up that warehouse was the story, itself, getting blown up in a totally unforeseen way.

Speaking of main characters getting killed, I think Walt will kill Jesse at the end of “Breaking Bad.” I think this because that is the single meanest, saddest, most dramatically loaded event I can imagine. It’s always been charming how these two guys remained loyal to each other as death and disaster rained down around them. If Walt betrays Jesse, then I’ll understand why they acted that way—so Walt could eventually prove he’s completely gone to the dark side by killing his partner. It would represent the ultimate break. (Maybe not the ultimate. Walt killing his family would be the ultimate. That would be gross, though.)

I’ll have to reevaluate if that happens, but for right now the greatest death scene I ever saw was Stringer Bell getting gunned down by Omar and weird-ass Brother Mouzone.

I think I can even quantify this. I was in college when I saw that episode, in my room on Sunday night (because my roommates didn’t watch “The Wire”). I was sitting in bed with my back propped on a pillow against the wall. When it became apparent Stringer might get killed in that scene, I left the wall and got to the edge of my bed and sat there, leaning forward. Mouth wide open. When the guns fired, I shot up off the bed and said “Oh!” This happened involuntarily. That’s how I know Stringer’s death was the best, even compared to Pussy’s on “The Sopranos,” or Lem’s on “The Shield,” or when Charlie drowned with the message on his hand in “Lost.” None of those was as dramatic and exciting as Stringer’s.

“The Wire” killed its crucial players all the time. This demonstrated the story was king, like in “Game of Thrones,” but it had a bigger emotional punch (“Where’s Wallace, String!?”) because characters were realistic, sympathetic, funny, sad, and (above all) interesting.

You were never going to see Mr. White or Don Draper or Tony Soprano get killed on their shows, but you couldn’t say that about a single character on “The Wire.” Even Omar bought it, eventually.

“The Wire” had an entire season where its top cop, McNulty, basically disappeared. Four middle-school students we hadn’t met before became the most important part of the show. I can’t imagine any other program even considering such a move, and it worked brilliantly.

There are no notes I would make on “The Wire.” Nothing I would change. I was actually working for a great newspaper, The Albuquerque Tribune, during that final season where so much takes place in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. The editors and reporters were all just like me and my coworkers, I thought. The Tribune was put up for sale and there was an entire year-plus when we knew we were gonna close and lose our jobs. And as that was happening, “The Wire” was telling stories about a cash-strapped newsroom getting gutted by buyouts. The newspaper guys on the show kept talking about “Doing more with less.” It was creepy how much I felt like my favorite show was mirroring my real-life work.

I guess I read meaning into the fact that the craziest, most ruthless gangster (Marlo) is alive and free at the end of “The Wire,” while the most proudly gangster gangster (Avon) is in prison and the most business-minded gangsters (Stringer and Prop Joe) are dead. If you really think about that, it’s brilliant and says something deep about life in “the game” that Omar’s always referencing.

But the smart messages and themes are ancillary. “The Wire” was a cops-and-crooks saga where neither side prevailed because “It’s all in the game.” Its Baltimore was a fictional TV-universe chess board where all the pieces had a part to play.

“Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are glorious modern classics we will remember for as long as any work of popular fiction can be remembered. But “The Wire” is the best. It has everything.

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The Red Wedding: Game of Thrones vs. A Song of Ice and Fire

The following blog entry is gonna be gross. Fair warning….

This is how the Red Wedding scene ends in George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. The chapter is told from Catelyn Stark’s point of view:

A man in dark armor and a pale pink cloak spotted with blood stepped up to Robb. “Jaime Lannister sends his regards.” He thrust his longsword through her son’s heart, and twisted.

Robb had broken his word, but Catelyn kept hers. She tugged hard on Aegon’s hair and sawed at his neck until the blade grated on bone. Blood ran hot over her fingers. His little bells were ringing, ringing, ringing, and the drum went boom doom boom.

Finally someone took the knife away from her. The tears burned like vinegar as they ran down her cheeks. Ten fierce ravens were raking her face with sharp talons and tearing off strips of flesh, leaving deep furrows that ran red with blood. She could taste it on her lips.

It hurts so much, she thought. Our children, Ned, all our sweet babes. Rickon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Robb . . . Robb . . . please, Ned, please, make it stop, make it stop hurting . . . the white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved. Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. That made her laugh until she screamed. “Mad,” someone said, “she’s lost her wits,” and someone else said, “Make an end,” and a hand grabbed her scalp just as she’d done with Jinglebell, and she thought, No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.

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by Hawk-of-the-Month

A few years ago I started listening to Martin’s book series off Audible. A Song of Ice and Fire runs thousands of pages, so it’s a lot of hours. I would walk our dog and listen to Martin’s great books. And when the Red Wedding happened, I remember I stopped walking on a trail in the middle of the dog park. My eyes got wide and I just stood there not believing what I was hearing, goosebumps rising all over. Two main characters, Rob and his mother Catelyn, were suddenly, shockingly, dramatically murdered in a spectacular betrayal. These were the good guys.

The Red Wedding finally happened on “Game of Thrones” last night. Here’s a headline from this morning: “‘Game of Thrones’ episode causes shock, outrage, tears.” A New York Daily News article about the episode had this quote from Martin:

“When I wrote ‘A Storm of Swords,’ which is, of course, an enormous book, the Red Wedding occurs two thirds of the way through it, but I couldn’t write it. When I got to that part I skipped over it, I wrote the aftermath and people reacting to it, but it was just too painful to write.

“So I finished the entire book and I had that one chapter left unwritten, where I had to actually go back and write it, and it was very, very difficult. I know it’s crazy, but like many authors, these characters become very real to me, so it felt like I was killing two friends of mine.”

And the actor who played Robb Stark said of filming the scene: “Honestly, it was horrible. It was very difficult for everyone and there was lots of tears from many people, including myself.” He said as soon as he was done shooting he hopped on a plane and cried the entire way home.

The Flip Side already analyzed the difference between the Battle of Blackwater in the book and the TV series (Click here), so let’s consider how HBO’s Red Wedding matched up to Martin’s, because something a little sinister and disgusting (And pro-choice?) is happening on the TV show.

Namely, these guys hate babies. Like, they REALLY hate babies. The HBO show can’t possibly adhere to Martin’s books that closely, because way too many things happen over the course of his 1,000-page tomes. So taking stuff out makes sense. But what about changing things? At the beginning of season two, we watch soldiers all around King’s Landing round up babies and kill them with swords, under orders from Joffrey Baratheon.

(As long as we’re talking Ice and Fire vs. “GoT,” Joffrey’s way better as a spoiled little brat than as the older, masochistic version the show created.)

This season, we saw Daenerys Targaryen free an army of slave eunuchs called the Unsullied. When their master is explaining how the Unsullied become such perfect soldiers, part of the story goes that they are each forced to kill a baby in front of its mother. In the book, though, each Unsullied is given a puppy. After the puppy’s grown up, the Unsullied soldier has to kill it.

Now, why would you change that story? Is the baby killing worse than the puppy killing, or better? It’s a fascinating question.

Robb Stark’s wife is the reason he and his mother and all his men are murdered at the Red Wedding. (He promised Lord Walder Frey, ruler of The Twins, who is way older and grosser in the book, that he would marry one of Walder’s daughters. Instead, Robb married another woman for love. Bada bing, bada boom: Red-ass Wedding.) Robb’s wife isn’t with him for the book version of the Red Wedding, but she’s there on the show. She’s not only there on the show, she tells him just before the awful betrayal that she’s pregnant.

And how does the HBO Red Wedding massacre begin? With a guy coming up behind Robb’s wife and stabbing her in the belly over and over. Then the arrows start flying. (“The Rains of Castamere” is the song being played over the murders in both versions.)

I’m not saying the guys in charge of the HBO show like the idea of killing babies. I’m just saying they have changed a story they’re trying to stick pretty closely to multiple times to work in baby killing. That’s weird. I don’t understand how a writer’s room would decide “We shouldn’t have Catelyn crack up and deform herself before her throat gets slit, but you know what we should do? Stab Robb’s pregnant wife in the baby a bunch of times.”

(Full disclosure: My wife’s pregnant right now.)

Not that I’m complaining. The TV version was great. Horrifying. It missed the boom dooming drums, but how about the way everything got quiet at the very end (like when a character would die on “24” and got the famous silent countdown clock)? And if the internet reports I just read are true, and the Red Wedding suddenly made a bunch of Tweeters decide they don’t wanna watch anymore, that’s even better. This story’s not for pussies.

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(Oh, and huge shout-out to Grey Wind, the great unsung badass of the first third of this saga. King Robb may have made dumb choices, but he rode into battles with the great dire wolf at his side and always, always won. The men of the North loved drinking after battle and recounting how many of the Lannisters’ men Grey Wind had killed in the fight.)

The Battle of Blackwater: Game of Thrones vs. A Song of Ice and Fire

It’s easy for a fan of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire to be nerdily obnoxious about the differences between author George R. R. Martin’s 1,000-page tomes and HBO’s gorgeous, gory TV show “Game of Thrones,” based on Martin’s books. But the Battle of Blackwater is an interesting case.

There’s a lot of suspense that builds over the course of this huge story, which jumps between dozens of characters, continents apart. The tension comes from the confrontations this whole thing moves toward. If you think you’re the rightful ruler of Westeros, then you know you’ll have to fight and kill those who oppose you. Fans will also note that Daenerys is obviously destined to attack King’s Landing with an army of brainwashed eunuchs and three huge, hungry dragons. Her story is building to an epic battle. The entire sprawling tale is setting the pieces to strike one another.

Anyway, the Battle of Blackwater is between Stannis Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon. The former is the dead king’s brother, the latter his son. Except Joffrey wasn’t actually Robert Baratheon’s son, but actually the product of an incestuous, covert affair between Baratheon’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and her twin brother, the dashing warrior Jamie.tyrion____after_battle_of_blackwater_by_tora_kun-d4wkrth

Stannis leads an army on boats through the Blackwater to King’s Landing, where Joffrey is ruling from the Iron Throne and enacting the political will of his evil mother.

The episode “Blackwater” has rightly been celebrated internet-wide as the best so far on “Game of Thrones.” The script is written by Martin and directed by Neil Marshall, whose monster movie “The Descent” is gory and scary and one of the best horror flicks this century.

The short build-up at the beginning of the episode is brilliant. We see Tyrion Lannister, a cunning dwarf who is Joffrey’s uncle, lying in bed with his lover. “If the city falls, Stannis will burn every Lannister he can find,” he tells her. “Of course I’m afraid.” His men sing and drink with whores as they wait for Stannis’s creeping ships to finally arrive.

Now, if there were a single major nerdy beef I have about the difference between the show and the books, it’s this: The show cuts far too often from one story to another. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books are made up of chapters from a few characters’ perspectives, and those chapters sometimes go on at great length, so each becomes its own story. The show jumps around much more often, with most scenes running short.

“Blackwater” is the show’s best episode because it’s a huge battle, of course, but it’s also the only time when the series has spent an entire hour on one part of the story. It stays in King’s Landing to show us what happens, rather than jumping to Danaerys or Jon Snow or any of the other characters facing destinies elsewhere.

The death toll of this episode is in the hundreds. Flaming arrows thrum throughout. A guy gets chopped in half by huge sword. Blood sprays everywhere. The screen is filled with guys getting stabbed to death, or getting shot through the eye with an arrow while they burn.

Wildfire plays a pivotal roll. It’s nasty stuff that burns green and can’t be doused. On the show, a single ship filled with wildfire is lit by flaming arrow after it drifts close enough to Stannis’s fleet. The resulting explosion is amazing.

But is it more amazing that what Martin describes in the book?: Fifty feet high, a swirling demon of green flame danced upon the river. It had a dozen hands, in each a whip, and whatever they touched burst into fire. 

When Joffrey decides to run and hide, it’s up to Tyrrion to lead his men, who have grown frightened by the king’s retreat and the defection of a fire-phobic warrior called The Hound. On the show, Tyrrion rallies his men with an awesome speech:

“They say I am half a man! Well, what does that make the lot of you! … There’s another way out, I’m going to show you. Come out behind them and fuck them in their asses!” Ram, ram, ram go Stannis’s battering rams against the gates. “Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms! Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any! This is your city Stannis means to sack! That’s your gate he’s ramming! If he gets in, it’ll be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, and your women he’ll rape!” Ram, ram, ram. “Those are brave men knocking at our door! LET’S GO KILL THEM!”

And kill they do. We watch Tyrrion take down one man by chopping out his leg from under him, and then burying his ax into the man’s chest. In the book, he kills many more men, because the proceedings don’t need to wrap up in an hour. He thinks to himself “Battle fever. I’m half a man, and drunk with slaughter. Let them kill me if they can.” The book continues: They tried. Another spearman ran at him. Tyrrion lopped off the head of his spear, then his hand, then his arm, trotting around him in a circle.

As he fights, Tyrrion squints through the smoke to see armed men streaming off a boat, the last boat of more than 20 that are locked together into a kind of bridge. The enemy is leaping from deck to green-flaming deck to cross the Blackwater, including a knight on a terrified horse. “Those are brave men,” he says. “Let’s go kill them.” He gallops toward the flaming bridge of boats, unwilling to look back to see if his men have followed. He jumps his horse into the fray…

Madness followed. His horse had broken a leg, and was screaming horribly. Somehow, he managed to draw his dagger and slit the poor creature’s throat. The blood gushed out in a scarlet fountain, drenching his arms and chest. He found his feet again and lurched to the rail, and then he was fighting, staggering, and splashing across crooked decks awash with water. Men came at him. Some he killed, some he wounded and some went away, but always there were more. He lost his knife and gained a broken spear. He could not have said how. He clutched it and stabbed, shrieking curses. Men ran from him, and he ran after them, clamoring over the rail to the next ship and then the next.

In this scene we see the rarely spoken truth about novels: They’re actually more spectacular than movies or TV shows. Books aren’t limited by effects budgets or running times. The only thing limiting the Song of Ice and Fire books is Martin’s imagination, and Martin’s imagination has no ceiling. In the book version of the Battle of Blackwater, a giant chain is raised to trap Stannis’s ships from retreating, so Tyrrion’s battle climaxes on the bridge of burning green boats, where he kills men and is ultimately betrayed and then saved.

The episode is fantastic on a necessarily smaller scale. It ends abruptly, with Tywin Lannister arriving with his own army. He bursts through the door to the throne room, where Cersei is preparing to drink poison. “The battle is over,” Tywin tells his daughter. “We have won.”

If he hadn’t said so, we might not have known.

“Game of Thrones” is a great show, embarking tonight on its third season, based on A Storm of Swords, which is the third, and by far the best, novel in the series. But it’s limited by the physics of TV-show making. The story has to be edited and watered down. We fans of the books may be nerds, but we’re getting the full tale, unfiltered, straight from Martin’s mind.

The show is great, but fans who haven’t read the books have no idea what they’re missing.

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