The Falcon and the Bad Guys Winning

The bad guys win at the end of Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. They do! Yeah, sure, our “good guys” walk away with grins and catharsis and a veneer of self-actualization, but in the end? The bad guys won.

I’m not talking about the Flag-Smashers, of course. The Flag-Smashers are the ostensible villains, the plot-moving antagonists, fulfilling a similar role to SWORD in WandaVision. The Flag-Smashers became bad enough dudes that the story’s moral imperative became bent inexorably against them. Once you threaten civilians – let alone politicians – in a Disney property, you are fucked. Karli Morgenthau and her fellow antifa supersoldiers get owned at the end of the story, mostly because they have become irritating to the Powers That Be. Karli is merked by Sharon Carter, one of the bleakest villains we’ve seen yet in a Marvel property, and the arrested Flag-Smashers are blown up remotely by Baron Zemo, an übermensch decrying übermenschen from his gilded cage.

Because despite his protestations, his self-identified-everymanitude, Zemo is a superman. He has incredible wealth and resources, after all. Never mind the text-level power of being a Main Character. And so he gets the last laugh over his “supremacist” foes, a nerd exploding some jocks. (Transparently, it’s the writers clearing away any potential supersoldier loose ends). But Zemo has no car bombs waiting for John Walker, despite John Walker being, you know, the exact epitome of everything Zemo claims to fear. A nationalist, a true-blue American supremacist with a chip on his preternaturally-beefy shoulder. (I will admit, one of the scenes I actually enjoyed in this series was the fight scene where John unleashes on Sam and Bucky. The fight choreography communicated very well just how scary someone like John could be, and Wyatt Russell’s unhinged bellows really landed for me.)

And John Walker walks away! In our final scene with him (in which we get the remainder of Julia Louise-Dreyfus’ one day she had available to film), he gets some new duds and a new fake name, and…that’s it! He gets to walk away and be the antihero. He even gets to trade a few barbs with Bucky in the final fight scenes. His extrajudicial killing might as well be an extrajudicial whoopsie. When the shit hits the fan, a line is drawn in the sand. Our titular heroes stand on the same side of the line as John Walker. So, standing beside Captain America and the Winter Soldier, our Main Character Villains (John Walker, Sharon Carter, and Baron Zemo) overcome the radical anarchist multiracial coalition. John Walker gets a job offer. Zemo may be in prison, but he’s alive and laughing. Clearly, like George Bluth Sr. before him, he’s running the family business from behind bars. Sharon slides right back into the good graces of the US government, since I guess they don’t do background checks or any sort of debrief when you’re a Main Character.

(And by the way, while I’m thinking about Sharon – the whole Power Broker/Madripoor thing felt suspiciously close to, say, an actual CIA front. Didn’t Nagle, our short-lived supersoldier serum scientist, tell us the CIA was backing his work at one point? Who’s to say Sharon Carter didn’t become a sort of Epstein-Maxwell nexus in Madripoor on behalf of the CIA? Okay, alright, I’ll back off, but I mean come on: her limitless wealth? Her maneuvering various terrorist groups to the benefit of imperial power? I know they’re just setting up Armor Wars or whatever with Sharon, but my headcanon gives Sharon information that could lead to the arrest of Hillar- you know, that’s a played-out meme.)

Anyway – the bad guys won. Except, of course, for Uncle Sam. Right? He got his bitchin new wings, he got the shield; he’s Cap.

He’s also incoherent.

The power structures of imperialism will simply bend if you harangue them about it for a little bit. Presumably the cool suit and the shield gives him a +5 to CHA or something.

This show flailed at Politics in the same way a toddler might flail at a passing car. Sam says some stuff about things, but ultimately it’s gutless and empty, a Whoopee Cushion of ideas. With his speech, he demonstrates how truly Foolish and Immature Karli was by simply talking the most powerful people in the world into doing the right thing. Why didn’t she try that? If only the writers hadn’t made her blow up civilians or whatever.

Look: I’m not coming to Disney’s Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier for revolutionary politics. I get it. It’s fine. But most neoliberal fantasies have the decency to put a nice coat of paint on their dribble-drabble. This speech is one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen in a Marvel property to date. I think it’s possible to go line-by-line through the speech and do a real intense close reading of the First Draft Pablum, but frankly: I cannot be bothered. Two thumbs down.

r/writingcirclejerk - I know writers who use subtext . . .

Sam comes back to visit Isaiah Bradley in the end, and takes Isaiah to – surprise! – a new room at the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. This room tells Isaiah’s story, the story of the US government experimenting on black men to create a white supersoldier. It features a bronze statue that is, I guess, of Isaiah. Isaiah finally breaks down, his icy sarcasm reduced to manful tears as he embraces Sam.

Kinda left me feeling bad, though. Because here’s the thing. What Isaiah deserves isn’t a surprise party. It’s not his wish to be ogled by the world. That’s kind of the point, right? At least, that’s the point I thought they were making a few episodes ago. Instead, Sam assimilates Isaiah into the Good United States Government. He says “oh, you hate and fear the government because they stole your entire adult life, your body, your love, everything about you? You were grateful to the nurse who faked your death because it meant you could live in peace? Ha ha check this out: I posted that shit online so everyone knows about you now!”

And for Isaiah to just break down and love this assimilation? Man, what the fuck? Sorry, but that’s not the character you showed us in every prior scene. Old wounds aren’t closed by bronze band-aids, and not everyone wants to be assimilated.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from TFATWS, it’s this: you live in the Empire. Get used to it. Find your place in the Empire and grow fat and happy with whatever power you can grab hold of with your own two hands. Walker, Sharon, Zemo, Sam, Bucky, Isaiah – they all live in the American Empire now. I mean that metaphorically, of course – these stories are all American stories, deep down – but even literally: Madripoor, the one place Sharon could go that was free from US interference, is now de facto tied to the American Empire through Sharon herself. There’s superficial irony in titling the final episode “One World, One People” when that’s been the “Hail Hydra” of the series, but I think there’s a deeper truth in that title. It is One World, and One People. That world is America, baby. Land of the free.

The bad guys won. The Empire won.

One final note that I didn’t have the semantic space for above: the storming of the GRC by the Flag-Smashers was the fantasy that the Trump-lovin’ deviants hoped to realize on January 6, 2021. In this fantasy, the populist revolt, organized in encrypted online channels, is able to puncture the defenses of the legislative capitol during a pivotal vote, led by a vanguard of serious operators. Again, in this fantasy version, the Storm is aided by operators on the inside, cops and army dudes sympathetic to the cause. You see it too, right? That this is how the Trump supporters hoped January 6 would go. Of course, in the real world, you’re unlikely to have cops and army dudes sympathetic to actual radical anarchists, because they’re more statistically likely to be sympathetic with right-wing nationalism. Weirdly enough, in TFATWS, the legislators end up capitulating to the basic demands of the terrorists after a cool PMC guy wearing spaceman goggles says “Listen Up, Chucklefucks! THREAD (1/?)” That’s weird, right? That Sam makes a pro-terrorism argument, saying that the feeling of helplessness the legislators felt should inform their choices? I mean, go off, king, but it adds to the general incoherence of an otherwise-aggressively-imperialist ending.

Game of Thrones S8E02: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Last week, I wrote a great deal about the dialogue in “Winterfell.” I wrote about how it felt as though the characters were essentially static, just sort of saying things at one another without developing too much in any particular direction. Last week’s episode was written by Dave Hill.

This week’s episode was written by Bryan Cogman.


Daughter of Death: A Song of Ice and Fire’s Shakespearean Tragic Hero



Lear. Hamlet. Othello…

And Daenerys.

GRRM draws explicit connections between these three timeless tragedies and Daenerys Targaryen, lighting the path for us to understand the trajectory of her story.

And when the bleak dawn broke over an empty horizon, Dany knew that he was truly lost to her. “When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east,” she said sadly. “When the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves. When my womb quickens again, and I bear a living child. Then you will return, my sun-and-stars, and not before.”

Never, the darkness cried, never never never.

Inside the tent Dany found a cushion, soft silk stuffed with feathers. She clutched it to her breasts as she walked back out to Drogo, to her sun-and-stars. If I look back I am lost. It hurt even to walk, and she wanted to sleep, to…

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Fantastic Transmissions E002: Quest of the Starstone by C. L. Moore

Episode 2 of Fantastic Transmissions is about Quest of the Starstone by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Quest is the first collaborative work between queen of sword-and-sorcery C.L. Moore and her eventual husband, Kuttner. We talk about the stylistic quirks of the early days of pulp fiction, examine the collaborative prowess of Moore and Kuttner, and lament for Moore’s slip into obscurity.

Podbean: https://bookshelfstudios.podbean.com/e/episode-002-quest-of-the-starstone/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-002-quest-of-the-starstone/id1341102133?i=1000402176576&mt=2

Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/m/D3vohqxn3j37k5gbamma2w7pduy?t=Episode_002_-_Quest_Of_The_Starstone-Fantastic_Transmissions

The intro music is sampled from Clyde Borly and His Percussions, off the album “Music in Five Dimensions.” The rest of the musc in the podcast was created by Blue Dot Sessions. Their work can be found on the Free Music Archive under a Non-Commercial Attribution License. You can also find all their tracks at www.sessions.blue. The clip of Green Hills of Earth is from episode 10 of the radio program Dimension X, first broadcasted by NBC on June 10, 1950, and now available from the Smithsonian Institution’s Radio Spirits series.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project.


Fantastic Transmissions E001 – It’s A Good Life by Jerome Bixby

Episode 1 of Fantastic Transmissions is about Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story, It’s A Good Life. It’s A Good Life is the story of a young boy with horrific psychic powers who holds an entire town under his sway. We examine how Bixby’s style complements his narrative, compare the story to its Twilight Zone adaptation, and talk about the themes of totalitarianism and narcissism.

Podbean: https://bookshelfstudios.podbean.com/e/episode-001-its-a-good-life-by-jerome-bixby/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fantastic-transmissions/id1341102133#

Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/m/Dwv7eiu7klgkfhdae5cnhjtbeai?t=Episode_001_-_Its_a_Good_Life_by_Jerome_Bixby-Fantastic_Transmissions

The intro music is sampled from Clyde Borly and His Percussions, off the album “Music in Five Dimensions.” The rest of the musc in the podcast was created by Blue Dot Sessions. Their work can be found on the Free Music Archive under a Non-Commercial Attribution License. You can also find all their tracks at http://www.sessions.blue. Audio from episode 73 of The Twilight Zone is the property of CBS.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project.


Secrets of the Red Ritual – EXPLAINED!

Fair warning: this post will contain some pretty heavy spoilers for both A Song of Ice and Fire  and the latest episodes of Game of Thrones Season 6. If you have a weak stomach/athsma/serious spoiler aversion, this is your last warning. Turn back!



The Tinfoil Link: Don’t Trust Marwyn

Everyone loves Archmaester Marwyn. He’s a tough dude, a hella cool guy who doesn’t play by the “rules” of the “Citadel.” He prays to queer gods and has probably killed some people.

He should also be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

Judge a Man by his Company

One of the basic writing tricks is to flesh out your characters by having other people orbit around them. GRRM does this to the extreme in AGOT with Stannis. Stannis never appears on the page, but we get reactions to him from a variety of characters, all of whom have been characterized in their own right. Ned likes him, Cersei fears him, Renly mocks him.

Marwyn is given the same treatment. Way back in AGOT, Mirri Maz Duur tells Dany that she learned of her healing arts from a Maester named Marwyn (aside – it’s likely that “Maz Duur” is just a Lhazarene corruption of “Maester.” Also – there’s some cool stuff gong on with Mirri. Her name sounds liky “Mary,” Lhazarene sounds like Nazarene, her people are lamb people…there’s an odd early-Christian link there).

Anyway! Mirri starts off as a healer, but eventually does some CRAZY magic. Seriously dark stuff. Demons come to life thanks to Mirri Maz Duur. She’s involved in dire dark magic. And if Marwyn taught her stuff…

But that’s not that bad. Marwyn’s a scholar! He was part of an exchange of knowledge! So who else talks about Marwyn?


Qyburn praises Marwyn; he says that Marywn is one of the few who understood his experiments. Like Marwyn, he refers to the majority of Maesters as “gray sheep.” And this is a man who performs Mengele-esque experiments on the living, a man who is the living embodiment of the “WE’VE GONE TOO FAR” scientist trope.

So honestly, going by Marwyn’s peers, he seems more than just mildly eccentric. He seems – well, frankly, potentially dangerous.

The thing is, people love to romanticize the fringe. The Rebels in Star Wars are a good example – taken objectively, they’re terrorists. But the fringe is romanticised, the weirdos made the good guys. For an even better example, peep the X-Files – specifically the Lone Gunmen. A group of well-meaning conspiracy theorists and weirdos, who are really sweet at heart and don’t pose much of a threat to anyone. Just some harmless loonies who happen to be right about the aliens sometimes!

But the thing is, in the real world, conspiracy theorists – real fringe folks – aren’t all sweet and cute and fun. They’re 9-11 truthers, they’re Sandy Hook truthers, they’re the kind of people who turn to a fictionalized version of reality in the most dangerous and frightening way.

(this isn’t to say there are no real conspiracies. I’m not trying to disparage anyone, either).

Judge a Man by his Words

So in the last chapter of Feast, we meet Marwyn face-to-face. Sam has a particularly wonderful conversation with the man, as he spills all the secrets he’s ever learned – Bran is alive, the babies were swapped, Dany is the Prince that was Promised. Marwyn makes an offhand comment about the “gray sheep” killing Aemon because they believed him dangerous. Specifically, he says –

“Ask yourself why Aemon Targaryen was allowed to waste his life upon the Wall, when by rights he should have been raised to archmaester. His blood was why. He could not be trusted. No more than I can.”

Okay, let’s unpack that. First off – Aemon goes to the Wall for a reason. A specific reason. To quote the eternally-wise wiki:

Aemon then chose to go to the Wall to take the vows of the Night’s Watch for fear that he may be used in a plot to usurp his brother.

Aemon *chose* the Wall. Because *he* feared his own blood. It had nothing to do with a maester conspiracy theory. But how would Marwyn know that? He wasn’t even born at the time – this was the mid-230s AC, and Marwyn ain’t THAT old.

So Marwyn is projecting his own conspiracy theories onto someone else’s life. Good sign! But there’s more to unpack: “He could not be trusted. No more than I can.”

Some people have taken this to mean that Marwyn too has magical blood, that he’s someone of import. But I really, really doubt it. I find it more likely that Marwyn has been made paranoid and bitter after a lifetime of harassing and quiestioning everyone around him. Some of it, I’m sure, has been justified. But this is Marwyn embiggening himself, comparing himself to a Targaryen. He’s not saying he has special blood, he’s saying that he’s so cool and edgy that he’s just as dangerous as a dude with special blood.

And this is the guy heading off to advise Daenerys Targaryen.

Referring for a second to the most accurate ASOIAF timeline, Marwyn departs Oldtown on 5/15/300 (arbitrary placeholder month/date). The Battle of Meereen happens on 7/19/300, about two months later. For reference, according to Quhuru Mo (captain of the Cinnamon Wind, Marwyn’s new ship), it takes him about “half a year” to get from Oldtown to Qarth. So we should expect to see Marwyn pop up in Meereen about a month or two after the Battle of Meereen. Maybe just in time for Dany to return with a Dothraki army.

A Man on the Fringe

Earlier I talked about how people like to romanticize the fringe. It’s an incredibly common fantasy trope for the weirdos to be right – for information to come from the unlikeliest sources. From a narrative perspective, this makes sense. When you’re writing about alien abductions, the crazy abductee theorists are the first ones to recognize what’s happening. Look at Independence Day, for crying out loud. OL CRAZY RANDY ISN’T SO CRAZY AFTER ALL, EH? The same holds true for fantasy – when you’re dealing with ancient prophecies, it’s the eccentric scholars who remember these prophecies.

But in real life, those people aren’t just eccentric. More often than not, there are other, personal reasons for why they think the world is out to get them. A lot of times, real conspiracy theorists have their theories as a stand-in for a personal problem with the world. In other words: sometimes it’s easier to believe that everyone is out to get you than it is to admit that you’re a dick.

Now let’s look at GRRM, a dude who plays with common storytelling ideas the way a kid plays with LEGO. What do you think is more likely: that GRRM is playing Marwyn straight, a la Independence Day, or that he’s going to portray him like a human?

Marwyn isn’t a hidden genius. He’s probably accidentally right about some stuff. And he did light a glass candle. But he’s also a man on the fringe, and it wouldn’t really be very ASOIAF-y if GRRM played that one straight for some reason. He’s been associated with necromancers and dark witches, with the dangers of unbounded curiosity. And he’s about to go join up with a nihilistic dwarf genius and a dragon queen with an army of savage warriors and a reinvigorated penchant for burning the shit out of her opponents.

I’m sure nothing could go wrong.