House of the Dragon Review:

George R.R. Martin’s Warning against Wars of Succession

(and an Argument for Democracy?)

By S.E. Barcus

October 27, 2022

Streaming Fantasy Smackdown

I’ll be honest.  When House of the Dragon and the LotR prequel, Rings of Power, went head-to-head, I was WAY more excited about Rings of Power.  I loved the three LotR films, loved the books, had never been such a nerd as to have read The Silmarillion, but had enough nerd friends that I couldn’t wait to watch a big-budget version of all the old myths, from Morgoth on down.  And GoT, while it was amazing when it ran with Martin’s novels, dropped off fairly precipitously at the end, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. 

Well – turns out Rings of Power hath screwed the pooch, and Dragon won the Battle of the Streamers.  Amazon’s creators just never learned the ‘George Lucas rule’ – no matter what else you do, have some action about every 10-15 minutes.  Amazon let their showrunners circlejerk along with all the old Silmarillion nerds, who all just wanted to bathe in the glory of Tolkien myths and characters without demanding enough background or dramatic action.  Dragon can be experienced and enjoyed by anyone, those who saw GoT and also those who did not.  It is riveting from the opening episode and throughout the entire season.  Rings is for 50-and-up hardcore J.R.R. Tolkien nerds, a pretty small fan base comprised of maybe just Stephen Colbert.  Thus, Dragon is easily the victor of the Fantasy Smackdown (as much as Martin doesn’t like such storylines, as described by Variety).

Human, All Too Fallibly Human

But more than delivering a fun ride, House of the Dragon surprised me with having a great message for our time, intended or not.

Where the original Game of Thrones (GoT) took from bits all over European history, from the War of the Roses to the Italian Renaissance to the Mongol raiders and so on, Dragon steals from the historical events within one monarchy – and manages to spin an amazingly complex and riveting story while doing so.

George Martin has said the plot stems from the real medieval events of “The Anarchy”, as wonderfully analyzed by critic Gillian Brockell for the Washington Post.  But I’ll bet you Martin was not as emotionally attached to this particular moment in history as he was excited that it gave him fodder for his main thesis.  I’m betting this particular moment in history inspired him, and fellow Producers Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, because it serves as empirical evidence that concisely captures the fallibility of inheritance as a method of transferring power, or succession.

(I do wonder how much Martin really contributed besides the story idea.  He has no writing credits for any of the shows.  Man, that guy is living the life!  But do you know who DOES have writing, and directing, credits?  Several friggin’ WOMEN! — Including Clare Kilner, Geeta Vasant Patel, Charmaine DeGraté, Sara Hess, and Eileen Shim.  This, along with the better publicized inclusion of people of color in prominent roles, shows a production team obviously dedicated to diversity and inclusion, which is very, very cool.  And any bro-boy racist criticism of this philosophy is now officially refuted by how awesome the season was.)

Art Imitates Life, Still Today

Similar to GoT, Dragon has part of its critical focus on Autocracy.  It shows time and again that Autocrats more often than not make poor decisions, with poor outcomes for the masses of ‘their’ people (it’s just one, fallible human being’s decisions and whims that people are forced to suffer through during that Autocrat’s entire lifetime, right or wrong), and they are also easily manipulated (see the King’s Hand, Otto’s, positioning of his daughter, Alicent, in front of the widower-King) and invariably corruptible (‘absolute power corrupts,” etc…).  And this still happens despite this season having arguably the most well-meaning King that Westeros could probably ever have, with Viserys. Therefore, hence, ergo, etc, — people should not put up with such forms of government in today’s Enlightened world.  (From the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”)  (And Viva Ukraine/Slava Ukraini.)

But with Dragon, there is the added focus and critique of how power is transferred – here, namely by inheritance.  All of the ways in which inheritance as a mode of transferring power is fallible and stupid are dramatically captured, with all of the inevitable messiness due to human nature, in terms of the variability of who we love and when we love and with how many we love and who we reproduce or don’t reproduce with and on and on.  Inheritance is shown to have a proclivity to produce confusing and thus often-contested successions, which often throughout history has led to our species’ greatest evils, murder and war.  The point is made so well in this series that it makes a powerful case that it is not only a fallible system, but also very dangerous, and therefore, again, very stupid as a system of transference of power — if people put up with it.  (Sorry, Charlie, I love your environmental activism, but the Monarchy still has to go.)

General Secretary Xi, of the PRC, for example, has no ‘heir’ or plans for a successor.  What happens if he dies suddenly of a heart attack?  Goodness help us, what a dangerous mess that could be.  Putin, also, has no named successor, and the oligarchs who would fight like dogs to take the job are, mostly, equally scary.

I was initially missing the cool older intro of GoT, that flew us all over the world to the various kingdoms.  The new intro initially seemed much less interesting, with blood running through Viserys’ model of old Valyria.  But as I have come to realize that this series is a treatise criticizing blood inheritance — and the blood that can run through the violent streets when one accepts such a stupid form of succession — the intro becomes so poetically appropriate in this light, with blood streaming out of and into the various family sigils, that now I quite enjoy it. 


Have you been watching the show, and been confused by all of the nuances as to who has a claim on succession, and why?  Have you said to yourself, “wait – why do they have the claim, again?  How are they related to King Viserys again?”  Good – that’s the WHOLE point.  You should be confused, and each claim should be valid, because that’s exactly how and why such a system is fallible and leads to wars. Need a “simple” chart? In a ‘picture is worth 1000 words’ kind of way, this Vox media file nicely captures how ridiculous and complex an inheritance can be, as demonstrated in this series.

So….   Yeah.  ….   Great series so far.  And subversive for the People!  This season — with its underlying message of how pathetic and dangerous short-sighted, ego-driven modes of succession are — has already infiltrated tens of millions of minds, and likely emotionally/subconsciously persuaded them toward the benefits and intelligence of Constitutional democracies, if they were not ‘woke’ to that fact, already.  It therefore does far more good moving us all toward an Enlightened humanity than any essay out of Foreign Affairs could ever dream to do.  And it does it all while being cool and beautiful and intense.  House of the Dragon is a nice example of the subversive “soft power” of Art and Culture at its finest. … Your move, Wolf Warrior 3. Try to have a plot and characters that are not laughably unrealistic, this time.

House of the Dragon dramatizes the foolishness and dangers of caveman Autocracy and poorly thought out means of power-succession, taken straight from real events in human history. As Santayana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Copyright 10-27-2022

House of the Dragon Review:

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

What a waste of good talent….

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

By S.E. Barcus

(*SPOILERS!*  Not that you should care — if reading this makes you skip the movie, so much the better.)

“The new Star Wars isn’t just a re-boot this time!”

— Oh yeah?  Luke was exactly like Yoda on Dagobah. He disses Rey at first, then agrees to train her. And Rey leaves, to save someone, before she is ready. And falls into a trap. And Yoda’s ghost appears to Luke, to chill him out, like Obi-wan did with Yoda.  ALL re-do.

— Kylo Ren wants to rule the galaxy with Rey, “like father and son” (or husband and wife?). Rey feels something good in Kylo and tries to turn him, but he’s just a dog, and brings her to his master.  But then during the fight between Rey and the Emperor, Kylo comes around, and saves her, by killing the Emperor.

— The Porgs?  They are both the new Ewoks AND Jar Jar, cuddly AND annoying.

— Crait’s salt planet purposefully looks like Hoth — and the giant armored door, like the Rebel’s Hoth door.  To set up a visual-exact-replica of Empire’s AT-AT battle. (And to give Gareth Edwards a cameo….)

—The shitty George Lucasy dialogue with forced-exposition and platitudes feels like the original trilogy’s writing – as if this was the first ever screenplay written by some NYU undergrad.  Characters like Poe have several whole, complete, un-natural sentences that they scream in the midst of a heated battle, when they should be concentrating on their fighting, in order to tell everyone – mainly the audience – the importance of how high the stakes are raised with this particular battle, or that this is our last chance to drop these particular bombs in that battle, and so on.  Painfully bad.  (When Rose tells Finn we are “not fighting what we hate; (but) saving what we love”, I outwardly groaned.)

— Kylo kills the younglings. … The younglings!!

— All of the above assumes Rey and Kylo are not going to actually end up being revealed as twins. (The big surprising line in the next movie? “No Rey — I — am your brother!”)

— Finn fell to his death — but didn’t!  There was luckily some elevator that saves him out of nowhere.  (There were multitudes of deus ex machinas in this movie; again, a sign of poor writing.)  But then Captain Phasma falls the same way, and DOES die.  So badass “Chromedome” dies an undignified pointless death … just like Boba Fett.

— Oh — Luke and Kylo have a big end-of-the-movie light saber duel, where Kylo might as well have said, “when I left you, I was but the learner.  Now — I — am the master.”

“Oh, but come on, there’s so much that’s NEW!”

— Ok, ok. That light saber duel does end differently — it ends with Luke ripping off the whole Yoda disappearing act?!  What the hell?!  (Don’t ever feel “balance” and “peace” and “oneness” in this universe — cuz when you get to Nirvana, your suffering doesn’t just go away — YOU go away.)  First Han, now Luke.  The only person to leave these reboots with their life is Carrie Fisher’s Leia.  What a pickle.  Two bad options.  They’ll now have to kill off Leia for practical reasons in some dumb car crash or landspeeder crash or some other dumb shit between the films, with a cheap melodramatic Vader-esque funeral pyre to start the next movie.  Or Carrie Fisher is coming back CGI to tell Rey she’s her daughter or some crap, which will be unconscionable.  They could have solved this problem.  Carrie Fisher died a full year ago.  Now they’re boxed in.  Ugh.

— Yes, there’s Luke chugging the blue milk from the tit of a walrus-cow.  Enjoy.  That’s new.  (Or is it?  Isn’t Luke’s milk on Tatooine blue?)

— General Ackbar dies a new, undignified and pointless death.  With no melodramatic fanfare or anything.  He’s just a Zoidberg in the background running back and forth comically across a blown up bridge.  The end.

— Leia turns into Superman or Star Lord.  That was a new thing. … Cheesy, but new.

— Wait – about a quarter of the movie is new!  And it — the whole casino world, Canto Bright – also gives Finn a storyline!  But think about it. It goes NOWEHERE.  It is LITERALLY pointless.  It adds nothing to the overall plot of this movie whatsoever.  Was the whole thing a false lead?  Was it all to set up del Toro as the new Brad-Pitt-Tom-Waits-looking mercenary, the new Han or Jaba?  Was it to force in an Asian character, so that the Benetton-millennials’ P.C. Star Wars can be complete?  (Hey – I’m all about increased diversity in casting and roles, and like that they have a main Asian character – but, alas, my cynicism overtakes me.  Everything this franchise does now smells of, “how do we increase the marketability and profit of the franchise??”)  So … tell me, what was the POINT of this whole sub-plot?!?!  Nothing.  A few cuts to Finn and Rose mopping a floor for 30 minutes of film would have moved the plot forward literally just as much.  You would’ve asked, “what did Finn do again? … Oh yeah … he … mopped the floor or something.”  Oh — and if I have to “get” the point by seeing the next movie…?  That would be like Disney giving me the finger, then telling me, “hey, if you want to know why I gave you that finger, you’ll have to come back tomorrow and give me more money.”

Bottom line:
The new Start Wars, “The Last Jedi”, was really such a shitty mish mash of all the old tropes. The fact that this major of a movie — with all of the incredible writers available in Hollywood, including the writers of this film — couldn’t get a decent script together SMELLS like studio heads forcing in marketing crap.  It’s like they threw $200 million dollars into a big bag and are dragging it around the world, and people are running over to it to throw money at it.  Then they’ll come home, add up their billions, and do it to us all over again.

It’s like the SNL franchise, trying so hard to not offend anyone, and so dumbed down to some USA-Today-4th-grader pop cultural reading level so as to get to a bigger audience, that it is now cornered in to no-risk, uninteresting story solutions.  Thank goodness Alex Garland’s new movie Annihilation comes out soon (speaking of a good ex machina), which will hopefully remove the bitterness from this science fiction backwash.

Ugh. I’m so done with this shit.

Oh.  WAIT!  Ok.  There was ONE really cool thing in the new Star Wars.  The lightspeed kamikaze scene of Laura Dern was super cool — … because it used the silent-space-sound-effect style of the Battlestar GALACTICA TV SERIES!  AAAGGHHHHH!!!!

Copyright December 2017

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!”

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, shows you the man behind the curtain at a Hollywood studio. 

Set during the 1950’s, the story involves Josh Brolin’s “Everyman”, Eddie Mannix, which is also a fortuitous alliteration. 

The first shot of the film shows Eddie deep in remorse, alone in a Confessional.  He has failed to quit smoking and has lied to his beloved wife about it — he smoked 3 cigarettes that day!  This is at once funny, as we hear the subtext of the Priest’s heavy sigh (“this fellow really needs to give himself a break”) – and yet, Brolin’s earnest crying is heart-wrenching.  One cannot help but love this Eddie, despite his, at times, stern hand (shown in the very next scene).  He is an honest, good man.  Which, by the way, is NOT a comment about the real, historical, Eddie Mannix.

Eddie is a studio head’s right-hand man, a “fixer”, and his task is to oil the gears of Capitol Studios (not so-subtly named).  Which is hard.  This devout Catholic, Eddie, sees that the workers within the studio contain the entire gamut of human “sin” – greed, homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock … communism….  And his main job is to make sure the studio itself, like a film, keeps up its illusion of glamour and purity.  He is The Director and Writer of the studio itself, for the gossip columnists and the public.   He is protective, wheeling and dealing to protect the employees, and never judging (“let him who is without sin…”), except when they are disloyal to the one True Cause – making movies.  In one scene, in his own modest “Father Knows Best” kitchen, he asks his wife for advice at choosing between his current job and an offer of an easier, higher-paying job.  His wife literally says, “you know best” – a TV-sitcom clue that Eddie is the metaphorical father to all of these misfits of Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, a competing capitalist industry of the 1950’s tempts Eddie to work for them.  And what do they produce, exactly? The Lockheed recruiter gleams and brags, “the H-bomb”. (“Armageddon,” notes our religious protagonist instantly.)   What about the ideological competition of the world — the Communists?  These are portrayed as coffee-house liberals living in luxury, talking about philosophy and economics, but not actually working at all.  (A bit of a cruel joke by the Coen Brothers…).  It seems the Coen Brothers see artists as trying to do something good, despite living in an irrational world.  Making art, is “the right thing” in Hail, Caesar!, similar in theme to the Italian’s current response to terrorism – giving youth money to spend on Art and Culture. 

Hollywood should not be completely flattered, however.   Could there possibly have been a message in the fact that actors seem so easily malleable, duped by the latest fad?  Or that the writers all seem to be bitter and smug?  Yet, this goes along with the Christian theme of “sin”.  No one is perfect (ok, except for maybe the real-life Lone Ranger, Hobie Doyle, played with boyish-charm perfection by Alden Ehrenreich).  These are fallible people.  But in scene after scene, all we see are people who are working, and working hard.  The work is palpable.  From the extras on the Roman set, hanging and literally suffering on the cross, waiting patiently all day for their lunch break, to the guys hauling plastic trees on and off the set, to the exasperated directors, to the lawyers, to the editors holed up smoking in their dark caves — this place is WORKING.  And with every pan over the mega-studio’s seemingly infinite number of warehouses/soundstages, one realizes that this is a factory as immense as anything the Lockheeds of the world can flaunt.  Hollywood, too, is a major industry, the Entertainment Industrial Complex shown in all its glory. 

Cinematically, Hail, Caesar! is just so much beautiful eye-candy, typical of the Coen Brothers.  Many scenes are homages to various genres — from spy thrillers with enemy submarines to film noir with a shady detective and femme fatale.  There are whole scenes dedicated to movies-within-the-movie, likely the most expensive and arduous scenes to produce, such as the over-the-top western, kaleidoscopic water dance, and the musical number (where the quite-talented Channing Tatum gets one of the bigger laughs of the film).  The Coen Brothers put their money — the film’s budget — where their mouth was — the theme that movies are freaking expensive and a lot of hard work, just for your pleasure, buddy! 

And what to make of the main movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar!, a movie about Faith, which involves a cocky Roman, played by superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who meets Jesus and immediately feels compelled to kneel humbly before Him.  Filming the climactic scene, Baird actually moves everyone on the set; they pause briefly in a spiritual moment.  But — he forgets the last line (ironically the word “faith”), curses “Goddamit!”, and dispels the illusion instantly, and people continue their secular work without a beat.  Just as we do when the lights come up.

There is a scene with Eddie, sitting in a screening room watching a rough edit of the opening for Hail, Caesar!, and right after the opening title appears, we cut back to Eddie, watching the rough cut.   Eddie is the star.  Eddie is Caesar.  Eddie is not the studio head (who is the appropriately named fat-cat, Mr. Skank).  He’s just a guy who works his ass off and isn’t worth a whole lot of money himself.  He represents the real heroes of the movie industry.  And by the end of the film, we have just shared in a very sweet love letter, thanking all of the people who work so hard to make us movies — or any Art, really — in this chaotic, horrible world. 

Yes, Hail Caesar.

Copyright 2-6-16

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”