Category Archives: Opinion & Essay

Jumping the Dragon: GOT’s Last-ever Episode is its First Big Let-Down

iron throne burning

Never before have I felt so much anticipation for a single episode of television. Never before, have I been so disappointed. After one of the most perfectly executed routines in film & TV history, to say that the creators of Game of Thrones failed to stick the landing would be an understatement. They went in for the final backflip, sailed through the air, near-perfect form… and fell flat on their fucking faces. Here, in my never-humble opinion, is how it happened.*

We’ll start with the first half of the episode. The first half was great! It picked up on the mood of unprecedented horror that the previous episode had shifted us into after an eight season run that was, though often dark and even macabre, never quite so chillingly post-apocalyptic. That shift followed logically from everything we’d witnessed in the last episode and tapped into a pattern the show has mastered over the years – plunging us suddenly into what we realize upon inevitable [trauma-induced] post-show reflection is a whole new depth of character and world. That said, the level of prevarication surprised me. I expected the majority of Daenerys’ own forces to have turned on her decisively by the time the dust settled. After all, she turned on absolutely everyone in that last episode. Her dragon breathed indiscriminate fire on the entire city, and there were plenty of shots to drive home the point that even her own forces who managed to escape death by dragon fire, just like the few civilians who survived, did so only as a matter of luck. Jon and Tyrion have dumb-lucked their way through nearly every battle to date, between them, and I’m fine with them dumb-lucking their way through this one. But their luck was no thanks to Dany and her dragon. So it didn’t completely work for me that we were dropped into a state of affairs in which multiple main characters were still on the fence about her – if only from fear or love – and the remains of her own surely-singed army still stood unquestioningly beside her. But, I wanted it to work, and the contrast between my expectations and Dany’s re-emergence struck a bone-chilling note that arguably only added to the power of the episode and the eerie turn the show was taking. All it really needed, like everything else this season, was more time. I needed to spend more time in the aftermath of that battle, watching the characters wrestle with what happened, witnessing the processes that shaped their thoughts and feelings by the time she walked back out into the open.

Forced to accept the pace as it was, I was still captivated by the complications shaping up. The conversation between Tyrion and Jon was a little too facile a device to sort of “move things along here,” but it worked well enough and helped me better understand Jon’s own prevaricating. (He still loved her – how could I have forgotten? But I had, in a way). The final scene between Jon and Dany only heightened the tragic, dystopic, darkly thrilling weight that felt right to anchor the end of a show that is, for so many, the end of an era. When the dragon melted down the very source/representation of all the chaos and of his own mother’s tragic demise (Jon, as usual, standing a few feet from the lava-inducing flame and molten iron without so much as a sunburn, nbd), my own long-standing speculation that the answer was going to be, “no one, no one sits on the iron throne in the end,” seemed to be validated in an incredibly powerful and unexpected way. The dragons in “Game of Thrones” have always been said to be incredibly smart and perceptive; for the dragon to turn on the throne itself and literally liquidate iron to bring it down was incisively meaningful; it was thrilling. It was worthy of Game of Thrones. It made the episode feel EPIC – and we were only halfway through!

Aaaaand then it all came tumbling down. From one of the most powerful scenes of the series, we cut to: a bright sunny day. 6 weeks later. Upon which the leaders of every house have miraculously assembled in King’s Landing to bicker over the fates of Tyrion, Jon and the kingdom itself. My first reaction to this, when I was trying to make sense of the episode after the fact, was: since when do the Unsullied or the Dothraki give a shit about who rules the kingdom, if it’s not Daenerys? When, between finding the man who murdered their queen (the queen they liked so much that they still stood beside her after she murdered their own kind, in bulk, during battle), and immediately murdering him in retribution, did they instead think, “Oh my, we have a bit of leadership vacuum on our hands here, best call in the rest of the kingdom – none of whom would necessarily stand up for us after witnessing the results of yet another Targaryen going fucking batshit – But hey, leadership vacuums: now there’s something we’re afraid of!” Since then, I rewatched parts of the episode and realized that Grey Worm does in fact state, at the beginning of this scene of assembled leaders, that the city is theirs (the Unsullied’s) now. Which makes a little more but also possibly less sense? It means Grey Worm coolheadedly decided to take Jon prisoner as a negotiating tool instead of tearing him to fucking pieces, which means he (Grey Worm) must have felt immensely threatened by the manpower with which Sansa, indeed, directly threatens him (as a presumable reiteration) at the top of the scene. But…but…with what remaining northern army is she threatening two of the most notorious and fearless groups of killers alive, who now have absolutely nothing left to lose? Two episodes after we watched Dany force every fighting man in the north to continue into another war directly following the war with death itself that had been literal centuries (not to mention an entire series) in the making?? After Grey Worm himself states, in this very scene, that he only wants “justice” and we saw mere scenes ago what “justice” means to him in an already-routed city? And yet, here we are, council assembled, ready to boss around an army that basically imposed martial law 6 weeks ago and has no convincing reason to fear of any form of retribution from the North.

So Grey Worm – previously seen slitting throats in continued service to a tyrannical murderer – leads prisoner Tyrion to said council. Tyrion tries to speak, and Grey Worm is like, “STFU.” Tyrion keeps speaking, and Grey Worm suddenly morphs into a glowering teenager, standing by sulking while he waits for the grownups to get on with it already . Tyrion is like “you know, you could choose someone to be in charge here.” The council seems to think this very obvious point (that yet completely contradicts the powerful message of the previous scene) is a good idea. I’m not even going to address Sam’s cringe-worthy pitch for democracy that follows except to say that its timing and delivery veers us jarringly off course from the genre and world we’ve been occupying for the entire series and borderline breaks the 4th wall in the process. At least the pitch gets laughed aside. Back to Tyrion, who, in a meta-referential moment that feels bizarrely Oscar-baity (do Benioff & Weiss realize this is still TV?), makes us all want to vomit when he suggests that the real way to choose a leader is based on who has the best story. And then in a move that comes across like it could only have been designed for the purpose of delivering an unpredictable answer to the question of the whole goddamned series, he lands on…wait for it… Bran. Well no, not “Bran,” as we’ve known him for eight seasons literally up until this point halfway through the last episode, but “Bran the Broken.” It’s bad enough to pull stories out of your ass as a justification for choosing the king to resolve the whole fucking series; does Tyrion really have to start whimsically coining new [insulting] titles while he’s at it? Does it have to be a ‘b’ word for the alliteration? (Because “Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons” established such a great alliterative precedent…?) It’s not just that the name is cheesy and kinda snide; I think it strikes us as so immediately out of place because Bran has done some dope shit since breaking his legs in episode 1, and I could name two or three things that have kiiinda come to define him more than those broken legs. If we look at him and think “broken” now, it’s not because of the immobile bottom half of his body that we’ve had the entire run of the show to get used to, it’s because he became a fucking weirdo when he lost all human emotion and personality in a cave two seasons ago!! And now, this unfeeling creature who’s been all but completely left out of the increasingly in-depth character study that Game of Thrones has presented is someone we’re supposed to feel anything about seating on the iron throne? I guess so because, one by one, the houses agree. Yara experiences a sudden bout of amnesia RE the longstanding Iron-born insistence on independence from the throne** – not to mention the fate of Jon Snow, which she seemed to feel pretty strongly about mere minutes prior – and gives an “ay.” Now-grown and undeservedly attractive frat boy Robin Arryn, who has, apparently, somehow remained alive since his last aggravating appearance (in season 6), is like “Wut, ok!” And I guess everyone else is just like, “ok sounds good, after all, stories,” because we continue round a semi-circle of consent until Sansa declares that she shall rule the North as an independent kingdom while supporting her brother on the iron throne. Funny how no one else seems to find this unfair and how, you know, not a single one of them even makes a case for Jon, prisoner or not. Are they still afraid of Grey Worm, brooding in his self-prescribed corner? Operator? Jon had a claim? The claim? And hey, sorry to get cringey myself here, but his claim wasn’t just to the Iron Throne, it was to his viewers’ hearts. That’s where “story” actually comes into play; if something feels right and justified and satisfying to your audience, then it’s probably the right move for your story – because your story is taking them on their journey. Your recipients become your arbiters. Predictable or not, an ending with Jon on the throne would have been satisfying for the actual show we’ve been devouring, loving and nurturing for close to 10 years. This scene was a fucking massive disconnected disappointment, and it set the tone for the rest of the episode.

What should have set the tone for the rest of the episode was the scene directly preceding this one. Remember that? Benioff? Weiss? How the last remaining dragon burned the iron throne to molten lava and it’s completely gone now?? That was some poetic fucking shit, and it was inarguably, in that moment, setting us up for an ending that, at the very least, grappled seriously with the question of the legitimacy of the iron throne itself. I would have cried real goddamned tears for the poignancy of it all if the episode had delivered on that scene by making the symbolic significance of the burning (and literal disappearance) of the throne bear some actual fundamental significance to the resolution of the series. What if Grey Worm tried to kill Jon, Arya fought him off, the entire army fucked off to Naath, and everyone else walked away from an empty city? What if anyone we care about landed on “the throne” and we got some real, bone-chilling foreshadowing that alluded to the tragic/inevitable continuance of the vicious circle? What if the throne was replaced by a council of houses with no singular decision maker, or the houses made a pact to henceforth rotate leadership from house to house, or Jon became king and proposed any one of these solutions to “break the wheel” and distribute power less chaotically throughout the realm, which is all we really would have needed to see to believe wholeheartedly that the realm was in good hands and change was afoot?? Really anything would have made more sense than what we got.

What we got for the rest of the episode was anodyne end-tying supported by feeble reasoning, delivered in an ill-fitting farcical tone that pushed one of the best-executed dramas of all time awkwardly in the direction of attempted comedy. I’ve noticed this comedic tendency a few times in the last couple seasons, like a crutch that Benioff and Weiss resort to when they’re floundering a bit with the plot. And while they are absolutely brilliant dramatic writers, they are very much not comedy writers. And this is not a comedic show. So the final half of the last-ever episode of their otherwise revered work devolved into vapid foolishness just as the plot and logic of the world crumbled (and brought our hearts down with it – I’m going full cringe now, I don’t care!!). Jon gets sent back to The Night’s Watch in a settlement with Grey Worm that’s only referenced after the fact and makes very little sense considering, a) the impotent posture in which we last saw Grey Worm (who perfectly conceivably, given what we’ve seen of him throughout the series, could have instead chosen to murder the entire pompous assembly sitting before him), and b) the fact that he and his army are then seen setting sail for Naath. They have no ties to King’s Landing, and there’s no reason to believe they would return or that they would give a fuck who rules the seven kingdoms after they (apparently) decided to just walk away from their own evident hold over the remains of King’s Landing. For a brief and lovely moment late in the episode, I actually convinced myself that as soon as Grey Worm et al landed in Naath, Bran would be like, “NOT! Jon is the rightful king (duh), I was just pretending until we got that army out of the way.” That little twist might have made for at least a slightly more satisfying ending, albeit with its own collection of issues.

And then there’s Arya. I think this comes down to a pure matter of opinion that’s probably splitting viewers more evenly than our collective opinion of the overall ending – but her ending did not work for me at all. Throughout these eight seasons, Arya has been my favorite character in a deeply relatable way; I see a lot of myself in her and have watched her grow with the sort of tender fascination that might befit…I don’t know, an older sister? A twin? Every step of the way, every time her arc went in a surprising or even frustrating direction, I came to understand her better and respect her more – and the moments when she reclaimed her identity, again and again in different and wonderful ways, were some of the most touching of the series for me. When she declared that she would be setting sail as an explorer of the unknown West, I see why it makes a loose sort of sense for a character who hasn’t hesitated to venture to faraway lands before, but I don’t buy at all that she would have come this far in her personal journey only to give up her family once again, and voluntarily this time. At every previous turn after the death of Ned Stark, she was motivated by her desire to reunite with her family, to seek vengeance for her family, then to stand strong together with her family against outside threats as she literally exposited 2 episodes ago in the course of expressing doubts about Daenerys to Jon. Maybe Arya would eventually decide to set sail. But not yet. Not anytime soon. Being disappointed about Arya’s ending could have been one of the worst blows of the whole show for me, but at least by this point in the episode all my expectations had been shattered.

We got our climax of “comedy” very near the end with a dumb scene in which a small council is reconvened for the apparent purpose of Bronn – ridiculously appointed Master of Coin – making bad jokes before Bran is wheeled in for two minutes and back out again. Then we get a bunch of match cuts of Jon, Arya and Sansa taking their respective places in once-again disparate corners of the world. That’s fine minus, you know, the massive disappointment of Arya’s and Jon’s ill-fitting endings. In the final scene of the episode, we see Jon leading a big group, including a bunch of wildling women & children, out into the wilderness north of the wall. Not really sure where they’re going or why. I guess someone just thought watching Jon’s back and a bunch of horse butts recede into the winter landscape with no immediately apparent purpose would be a nice closing shot? I don’t know. Like the whole second half of the episode and the whole ending overall, it was dumb.

One final thought about it all before I get back to, I don’t know, having a life or something. Maybe the ending itself didn’t actually need to be drastically different. If this single episode was split into, say, three episodes, and every other episode of the last season was split into two, Benioff & Weiss probably could have pulled off almost anything. We’ve witnessed so many shocking reversals in this show; it would be hard to convince me there’s a plotline they could not make work if they put the time and attention into developing it. What this whole season, but especially the final episode, lacked most was time. Everything was underdeveloped; everything happened too abruptly. In season 7, we suspended a little more disbelief than usual as the pace picked up and geographical realities started melting away. In season 8, we had to suspend a little more when the pace picked up yet again. I think most of us were able to stay mostly onboard as long as the pacing within the season was fairly consistent – but the last episode stepped on the gas again and just left too many dots woefully unconnected.

It might be hard to rewatch “Game of Thrones” and fully appreciate it, as I’d always hoped to do someday, now that I know what it all fizzles into. But hey, maybe I was released from my excessive fandom in the best way possible. If the creators themselves are so totally over it, I guess I should be too. To one of the most thrilling, awe-inspiring, and ultimately touching shows ever written: You were truly the best. Until you weren’t anymore. RIP.

 

*or just my final attempt to rant out ALL OF MY FEELINGS !!

**I mean I could be wrong about this. I didn’t read the books. I’m sure someone who did will correct me.

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Review: Osipova, Hallberg (and we can’t ignore Kittelberger) in “Pure Dance”

Pure Dance

On Friday, April 5th, I attended Natalia Osipova’s “Pure Dance” program with David Hallberg at City Center. Long recognized as one of the world’s preeminent ballet talents, Osipova is one of very few ballerinas with the clout to commission her own evening of solos and duets from disparate choreographers. She danced in five of the six pieces presented; the sixth was a solo for Hallberg. Overall, I found the program a clear reflection of the present-day ballet landscape, with multiple attempts to integrate more contemporary movement into classical ballet technique (to varying degrees of effectiveness), and an educational preview of Osipova and Hallberg themselves, neither of whom I’ve seen perform with any regularity over the years. (I don’t think I had seen Natalia before at all!) There was just one piece that moved me deeply – Roy Assaf’s “Six Years Later,” which, alone, was well worth the ticket.

Before the show began, I was excited to be joined not only by my good friend/Pod de Deux co-host/fellow dance nerd, but also by two non-dancer friends who harbor a refreshing curiosity about dance. Throughout the show, I was reminded of how much fun it is to hear the perspectives of people who haven’t been steeped in dance throughout their lives – sadly few and far between in any concert dance audience. One thing that struck me in particular is how much more open non-dancers can be to seeking and perceiving narrative elements in abstract pieces. Despite my own resistance to what I perceive as the trendiness of abstraction, I realized that I’m hesitant to create my own narratives when watching an abstract piece. It almost feels like I’m not allowed to project structure or story where it might not be intended, and I’m afraid to risk misinterpreting the all-hallowed choreographic intent (however unclear that intent may be). It wasn’t until I heard my companions spinning creative theories about what we had just watched – particularly in the dark, twerky “Flutter” by Iván Pérez – that I realized how bound I’ve become to my own internalized sense of the expectations of a dance viewer. That said, if I don’t feel drawn into a piece, it also doesn’t really occur to me to pay close attention or theorize about what meaning or narrative might present itself; I tend to tune it out or automatically switch into a more superficial viewing mode. I’ll have to keep bringing non-dancers with me to shows so I can refresh my own eyes through their more curious (and decidedly less judgmental) ones.

The evening opened with “The Leaves are Fading,” an Osipova/Hallberg duet by Antony Tudor that originally premiered in 1975. The subtly water-colored costumes were pretty. Osipova’s technique was characteristically impeccable. But the piece itself felt like a dime a dozen – a dull attempt at contemporary ballet in which the dancers often looked awkward breaking with classical technique. One factor that consistently irks me about pieces like this is the way the dancers always seem to wind up holding their wrists and hands –somewhere between pure ballet (who can help all those years of training?) and, perhaps in the moments when they remember they are supposed to be looking less ballet, downright limp…always, therefore, a reminder that we are watching ballerinas step deliberately outside their comfort zone.  The image of Hallberg’s weird turned-in pirouettes also sticks in my mind as a particularly ugly recurring riff. Surely, I remember thinking at the time, any dancer chosen to share the bill with Osipova (especially with Hallberg’s own reputation preceding him) is better than this. Indeed, Hallberg’s solo, “In Absentia” by Kim Brandstrup (the only other piece I really enjoyed aside from Assaf’s stunning work), reassured me of Hallberg’s undeniable skill, grace and lanky beauty.

The second piece, “Flutter,” by Iván Pérez, was more interesting in a sense but, I felt, too deliberately so. Everything about the piece seemed to be trying too hard, from the moment it opened on Nico Muhly’s “Mothertongue” (described as “a soundscape of female voices…formed by digits extracted from addresses where Nico had lived”), to the dancers’ constant twitching and trembling (like drug addicts without their fix, as one of my non-dancer companions observed). They entwined and separated and moved through aerials that, whether I had seen them before or not, did little to compel me.  I just felt that I had seen the same stylistic trope, or too many too-similar attempts at innovation, too many times before. Much of Pérez’s other work is fluid, visceral, gorgeous and commanding; perhaps this one would have been better set on a different pair. Or perhaps it, too, just didn’t work for me for reasons I can never know. Taste will always be a mystery.

The third piece before intermission was the aforementioned Hallberg solo, “In Absentia.” I found it quietly beautiful and was relieved to be impressed by Hallberg’s skill. He appeared to alternate between sitting in front of a tv and restlessly arising to move around the “room” (a studio apartment?), reflective and alone. The piece indeed embodied the sense of absence the title denotes but not, to me, in a way that felt sad, lonely or alienating so much as pensive, personal and, to borrow a word from Brandstrup’s program notes, perhaps a little uncanny.

Throughout Act I, I felt that Osipova, though technically brilliant, was lacking in the qualities that truly captivate me. Attempting to explain it to my companions, I described a three-tiered pyramid. Tier 1 is technique. And let’s be clear: it takes a rare and incredible talent to master ballet technique. After technical mastery comes tier 2: the subtle use of port de bras, musicality, eyeline, timing and other very detailed physical factors to convey clear emotional cues to an audience. But only in tier 3 do you find the best of the best – the dancers who take your breath away, who completely embody the emotion of the movement or the soul of a character, who create a sense of profundity out of thin air. I’ve noticed in the past that female ballerinas in “tier 3” are uniquely able to carry the role of a classic balletic heroine, which always demands a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength. Still, like taste itself, tier 3 is a real mystery. Trying to figure out exactly what it is about these dancers, their movement, their style, that holds you so captive is an exercise in futility. That said, the quality can be fleeting; I think many dancers who transcend to that tier 3 pinnacle in their youth unfortunately lose some of the magic as they grow older and more accustomed to their roles and routines. It reminds me of a passage I’ve probably quoted too many times now, in various other contexts, from the incomparable genius Edith Wharton:

“…a subtle change had passed over the quality of [Lily’s] beauty. Then it had had a transparency through which the fluctuations of the spirit were sometimes tragically visible; now its impenetrable surface suggested a process of crystallization which had fused her whole being into one hard brilliant substance. The change had struck Mrs. Fisher as a rejuvenation: to Selden it seemed like that moment of pause and arrest when the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into its final shape.” (House of Mirth)

During Act I, I couldn’t help but wonder if Osipova was an example of this kind of theoretical slippage in my theoretical hierarchy. Though far enough from retirement, at 32, she already has a long and storied career behind her; in ballet-years, she’s getting on.

The first piece after intermission, Roy Assaf’s “Six Years Later,” was stunning proof of the difference that both choreography and chemistry can make. My neat theoretical tier assignment flew out the window as Osipova and a new duet partner, Jason Kittelberger, held me spellbound. One of the most intriguing motifs of the piece was the motion of one dancer covering the other’s face with their hand, and then sometimes pushing them or pulling them by the face – at times combative or rough, at times sensual and intimate. The rather cryptic program notes reference the transport between past and present, glimpses of an uncertain past, assumptions confirmed and shattered… To me, the piece unfolded as a clear, narrative domestic drama. It opened on an immediately-captivating Osipova and Kittelberger, locked in a drudgerous routine that morphed into a stubborn power struggle as the first few notes of “Moonlight Sonata” repeated, over and over and over, before eventually continuing into the well-known piece in a deftly-executed reveal. The duo’s movement transitioned gradually into something softer, deeper and more vulnerable… Only to land in open conflict when Kittelberger’s attention waned and a controlling, vengeful passion bubbled up in Osipova. But then, the skies cleared, the music took a sudden turn – to a 60s pop track no less! (Marmalade’s “Reflections on My Life”) – and the couple transitioned once again; they became shy and sheepish, their affection building to a positively giddy high like two teenagers in love. With no change in costumes nor set, I could practically see them skipping through a sunlit field. I, of course, found myself hoping this was the end – a happy ending for our couple, who had had only to work their way through the darkness and hardship to reap the sunny reward at the end of the tunnel! But then Marmalade ended, the mood grew more somber, and I realized how foolish I had been to harbor hopes for a fairytale. That incongruous field-skipping poppery was incongruous because we weren’t watching a fairytale. We were watching life – as it unfolded between two people. The rest of the piece wove its way toward what I felt at the time (if I remember correctly) was a sort of resting place between the darkness and the light; the couple seemed to find a deeper, quieter peace together. I’m writing this later than I’d like and my memories are fuzzy, but I think this final phase of the piece was set to one of those incomparably beautiful operatic scores that induces immediate teary-eyed wistfulness. Interestingly, despite or even alongside my own projection of linearity (/sense of an “end” at all), I walked away with the message that there is no resting place in a relationship – only unending variation along the way. Maybe the piece itself brought the viewer to a sense of conclusion, as the best art often must, while its overall idea was open-ended. Or maybe the intellectual content told us there was no conclusion, while the emotional arc deposited us in a place of reassurance – that it’s okay not to have a conclusion; we can find peace within endless change.

The last two pieces were, again, just okay. The final piece, another Osipova-Hallberg duet, this time by the choreographic darling Alexei Ratmansky, I honestly don’t remember. The 5th was Osipova’s solo to Ave Maria. It’s easy to fool an audience into feeling something when you’re draped in the most exultant piece of music ever written, harder (or should it be?) to actually bring your movement to the level of the score. As a matter of pure stylistic preference, I didn’t love the way Yuka Oishi’s choreography shortened rather than expanded some movements and phrases, in counterintuitive interplay with the music. And sadly, I felt that Osipova, absent the thrilling magic of her chemistry with Kitteleberger, was back to “tier 2,” falling just short of invoking an authentic emotional resonance. “Six Years Later” made it clear that Osipova is in full possession of “tier 3” ability; Ave Maria (and the rest of the program) did not. Maybe this simply reflects where she is in her life; recent insta pics would definitely suggest she and Kittelberger are feeling inspired by one another well beyond the stage. 😉 I’ll definitely be following them as a duo, and I’ll be curious to see how Osipova continues to evolve over time.

While I might not have loved every piece, I’m also eager to follow all of the choreographers who were presented in the show. Experimentation with form is inherently trial and error; some trials will succeed, and others will fail. (And that’s just to my taste.) If I took any overarching thought away from this performance (or maybe just from my reflections on it), it’s that nothing is fixed. Talent, taste, feeling, resonance and life itself are in a constant state of flux. At best, I guess we can take comfort that where we have fallen short today, we might have a chance to do better tomorrow.

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Why This Millennial <3 Hillary

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens to a question as she testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington

I am a die-hard supporter of Hillary Clinton. I am an excited supporter of Hillary Clinton. I supported her presidential bid in 2008, and I support her even more enthusiastically – at times desperately – in 2016. I am a woman, a feminist and a (slightly older) millennial. I grew up with a mother who ardently admired Hillary. I graduated from Wellesley. I’m ambitious. I value intelligence, nuance, distinction and drive. I care deeply for the expressiveness of language, and sometimes I feel an even deeper disgust for its rhetorical abuse.

If those are the outlines of my identity, maybe it comes as no surprise that I so strongly favor Mrs. Clinton. But I don’t think this is a game of pure identity. I think Hillary Clinton has been the smartest presidential choice for a long time and remains the smartest choice today for a variety of concrete, political and even philosophical reasons that go far beyond our individual identities. And I so intensely wish that everyone around me, but especially the millennials who are my peers, would take a few minutes to be thoughtful about her, to give her the credit and consideration she deserves, whether their experiences and identities align to push them naturally in her direction or not. I hope, in delving more deeply into a few of my recurring thoughts about this election, to inspire more widespread respect and support for such a talented, historic and truly inspirational woman.

Hillary Clinton is Liberal.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Hillary Clinton is a liberal Democrat. She has been a liberal Democrat for her entire adult life, and she has been fighting tirelessly for her own deeply held progressive beliefs for longer than most of us millennials have had a political identity at all. I understand why the youthful backlash to today’s pandering, extremist conservative America would swing toward the angry guy on the far Left shouting in equally extreme opposition to the Right, but Bernie Sanders’ relative position on the political spectrum doesn’t change Hillary Clinton’s actual record. In fact, Hillary and Bernie “voted the same way 93 percent of the time in the two years they shared in the Senate.”[1] And during her final term in the Senate, Hillary was more liberal than 85% of its members (compared to Obama’s close but lesser 82%).[2] She has been a leading voice for progressive health care reform since 1993 when she became the first First Lady to take on a significant political role and enormous political responsibility in a fraught partisan environment as the leader of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. And she has, time and again, been one of the first and very few proactive voices for women’s rights.

It’s true, Clinton’s positions on some of our cherished liberal issues of today have changed over time. She wasn’t the first to support gay marriage, for example, and she voted in favor of the war in Iraq. But to jump to the conclusion that a few “non-liberal” smirches on her record cancel out a much larger progressive history is unexamined and deeply flawed. There are two very important things to understand about her record:

  • Hillary Clinton has been consistently left of or in line with mainstream Democratic positions. When she has changed her opinion over time, as in the case of gay marriage, the evolution in her thinking has kept pace with her Party and her base. She certainly hasn’t flip-flopped wildly back and forth. Contrast that to Donald Trump, the perfect example of a candidate who says something different about every matter of policy, opinion, and even fact every single goddamned day – who very clearly harbors no legible guiding philosophies. Hillary, on the other hand, has clear guiding philosophies that are balanced with a strong Party identity. Whatever your thoughts on the Democratic Party and its platform, understanding her loyalty to this political entity is essential to understanding her as a politician.
  • The ability to compromise and change your mind over time is important in any highly effective professional and absolutely imperative when it’s part of your job description. Politicians are elected to represent a larger group of people; ethically as well as practically, they’re required to weigh their own beliefs against the beliefs of their electorate. There’s certainly a line, if sometimes grayish, between a politician who, having no principles of her own, caters obsequiously to the will of her base for the sole purpose of continued job security, and a politician who manages to balance her own enlightened[3] convictions with the will of the people whom it is her job to represent and without whose support in the ever-present next election she would not be able to remain in office pushing for change. In other words, politicians often have to make short-term compromises in order to stay in the game and keep standing up for their long-term ideals. Finding the balance can’t be easy. But Hillary’s voting record and history suggest she’s done a pretty damn good job. Certainly, she appears to be attending to this balancing act more than she appears to be engaging in some kind of bizarre and complex masquerade of political identity.

While the guy who claims to stand up for his own beliefs against all odds might have a definitive, almost romantic on-face appeal to a generation whose guiding philosophies include a staunch conviction of inalienable rights and an almost aggressive defense of independence, a stubborn politician isn’t able to make the necessary compromises to bring about real change in the long-term, and, frankly, isn’t really doing their job. There’s still a place for hardheaded visionaries, but that place is not in the one position in the political world that demands the most nuance, aplomb and careful maneuvering. And there’s no place for vilifying or writing off those who, in contrast, fulfill the true political role to the best of their ability, using compromise to take concrete steps in the right direction over time.

Bernie v. Hillary is not a battle between liberal and moderate. Hillary is a very liberal politician with a very liberal record who has developed keen skills at accomplishing progress toward her own core ideals as well as the ideals of her Party and her base. If you would like to see the United States move farther Left, there’s a smart, thoughtful and well-paced way to do that; it’s not always by voting for the candidate who’s yelling the loudest and proposing the most radical changes in a few hot-button areas.

The Issues.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that we’re not talking about incredibly stark distinctions when it comes to the specific issues of this election.

Beyond all the Wall Street invective and an occasional mention of Hillary’s old-news war vote (the best critique of which, considering her actual reasoning, is that it was essentially too idealistic[4]), the two big Bernie issues we’ve seen spotlighted are the minimum wage and student debt. Bernie insists on a $15 federal minimum wage, and Hillary proposes a $12 federal minimum wage. Bernie wants to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities. Hillary plans to eliminate tuition for community college and eliminate debt for students attending a public college or university in their home state. There is not a gaping philosophical difference in these opinions. Both candidates believe in substantially raising the minimum wage and making higher education significantly more affordable.

To start with, Hillary’s platform on the minimum wage is based on a much more detailed, real-world assessment of what might actually be successfully achieved. An increase to $15 more than doubles the minimum wage in 21 states[5]. Economists have been bickering over the consequences of minimum wage hikes for years, and the only takeaway I’ve been able to cull from the sludge is that there are very complicated and uncertain economic consequences associated with large hikes, especially when you consider that small businesses represent more than half of all jobs in the U.S.[6] It’s simple common sense to understand that many business will cut back staff hours and staff positions when the minimum wage rises. While the extent of the negative consequences is, I’m sure, severely overstated in much conservative propaganda, and this is certainly a topic I’d like to learn more about, we should be looking for a candidate who pushes the issue in a liberal direction while taking into consideration the variety of consequences at play and the federalist structure of our country. To think that Hillary is not liberal enough when she’s suggesting a $12 minimum wage is insulting, and to think the economics of the situation are clearly in favor of a large increase across the board, despite significant variation in cost of living and minimum wage from state to state, just seems like wishful thinking.

What I find interesting about the education debate is that Hillary’s ideas are based on what strikes me as a very American philosophy of balancing government support with individual contributions to one’s own success. Bernie, on the other hand, directly cites multiple European countries in his platform. I don’t think this is something we usually talk about in a mature way; I find it disconcerting that I never hear my peers on the Left discuss what it means to be American or what our country’s unique values are – questions that should underlie any political debate – while the Right deals with the idea of America constantly, superficially and often xenophobically. I think the lefties of my generation tend to react against whole concepts that we associate with obnoxious Rightwing rhetoric, which, while completely understandable, effectively allows the GOP to co-opt entire conversations – and the question of national identity is a supreme example. Our shared underlying national philosophies are infinitely worthy of speculative exploration, through the sharing of experiences, in addition to more concrete exploration through an understanding of national history and politics. For my (speculative) part, based on my experiences abroad, I think Americans do have a stronger propensity to pursue big dreams and to push ourselves to achieve those dreams independently than do our European counterparts whose government support structures tend to be stronger and philosophies of life differently focused. Of course there are good reasons to strengthen our government support structures (!) – and even better reasons to be highly strategic about how that’s done. Not only is Hillary’s more moderate (but still, let’s be clear, significantly more supportive than the status quo) education plan better aligned with a unique national philosophy that (in my opinion) places distinct value on blending individual and governmental contributions, but it accomplishes the aim of making school affordable without unnecessarily overspending on a single issue. Why, when we have serious infrastructure failings, climate change and many other incredibly expensive and dangerous issues to worry about, spend the money to make college and university free when we could spend less to make it affordable and accessible? Choosing the right goal is the first step to successful policy.

All of the above flows clearly into one of my biggest frustrations with popular opinion and rhetoric surrounding this campaign: how have we gotten caught up in the idea that smarter, more pragmatic policy is uninspiring?? Who decided that pragmatism stands in such contrast to idealism?  I, for one, feel truly inspired and even excited by thoughtfully crafted policies that push society in a liberal direction while standing half a chance of coming to fruition. I am not inspired by political lies, which is what outrageous promises of overspending on select popular issues amount to at the end of the day, no matter whose mouth those promises come from.

Experience is Essential.

Of course, a leader is not just a platform. Neither is a leader just a personality. From the people who voted for George W. in 2004 because “he seemed like a guy [they] could have a beer with,” to certain Berners of 2016 who condemn in-depth experience as the very fundamental of corruption, too many people have lost sight of essential perspective on what we, as voters, are doing; in short, we are hiring. Voting is a hiring decision. Holding political office is a job. It’s a difficult, complicated job for which one must understand arcane legislation, balance personal opinions with the will of the electorate, work within and around the complicated set of rules and governing bodies at play, and, ideally, know who to work with and when in order to successfully craft legislation, gain support for initiatives, solve problems and even respond to crises. These job responsibilities have implications for the quality of life, and sometimes life or death, of a great number of people.  So when we decide who to support in an election, as we would decide who to hire for any important professional position, our decision shouldn’t be based solely on a candidate’s collection of goals. In fact, hiring is mostly based on aptitude – a candidate’s ability to accomplish the goals of the company and the position. And the most idealistic stance we can take is to hire (elect), based on our impression of aptitude, the candidate who appears most likely to take positive steps toward achieving our goals. The level of conviction a candidate displays is certainly one factor to consider because someone who feels personally passionately about the goals of the position may be somewhat more likely to accomplish those goals. But equally if not more important qualities to look for in a candidate are intelligence, flexibility, the capacity to listen to others, the ability to assess details in the context of a larger picture, and relevant experience making strategic decisions.

In fact, relevant experience is usually the biggest factor in one’s ability to accomplish change. I think it’s seriously off the mark to suggest that in-depth political experience is problematic in and of itself or to take aim at the relationships formed in the process of gaining experience. The political arena is overflowing with unsavory characters working to influence legislation for their own selfish gain, and the world is overflowing with unsavory people and industries that need to be regulated. Anyone who has seriously engaged with the process of passing legislation will have had to engage with the players at the table, including lobbyists and representatives of any industry facing regulation. If you want to make serious change in regulations governing the financial industry, for example, you first have to understand the complexities of the current regulations and where they break down; you have to pursue as detailed an inside view of industry operations as possible. Political leaders, if they’re doing things right, sit down with Unions, industry executives and everyday workers not just for photo ops and plumage-fanning but because they need to understand, comprehensively, how the stakeholders of our society fit together before they can pass meaningful legislation to improve regulation, incentives and economic opportunities.

Indeed, the ability to sit down with everyone involved in an issue, even the “establishment” or the “enemy” – whether that be the religious Right or the investment banking industry or al-Assad himself – and haggle towards progress is absolutely essential in politics. Powerful industries that represent significant pillars of our government and our economy can’t be treated like a monolithic good or evil, nor simply dismantled without devastating consequences. You don’t just take down Wall Street in a stable, developed democracy (however messy and gridlocked its legislative branch may be). You use your relationships with Wall Street and your alliances with the other party to formulate a smart plan for regulation that keeps the economy running and stands, perhaps, more than an ice cube’s chance in hell of getting past a divided Congress. That’s how change gets made, and that should be our goal.

Undeniably, it could be difficult to distinguish between a candidate whose ties to certain industries might corrupt their own incentives to apply meaningful regulations to those industries and a candidate whose industry knowledge provides them with the requisite inside understanding. But the existence of the distinction has to be acknowledged. If we throw out everyone who appears to have widespread relationships across the political and industrial spectrum, fearing their corruption, we throw out everyone with the capacity to make precise incisions in the status quo. I don’t think Hillary is making it into any old boy’s clubs anytime soon, but I do think she’s learned to work with many of them and gained respect across multiple dividing lines despite the extreme Right’s terrified blitzkriegs against her. I think her consistently liberal track record and her ideas for regulation suggest that she’s a prime representation of someone whose “establishment” relationships are ultimately beneficial.

Perhaps more importantly, I just don’t see how Bernie’s anti-establishment rhetoric could translate into a real capacity to govern. Some of his statements have even scared me; in one of the early debates he answered the moderator’s question about how he intends to take on the Financial industry by literally saying, “The people will rise up with me.” This is the rhetoric of messy revolutions and military coups; it’s not the rhetoric of a leader who has an understanding of stable, positive reform processes and who seeks to impress upon the electorate his real-world ability to make clear plans and pursue change in a healthy way. I see that Bernie has the capacity to incite, the capacity to act as an important figurehead who raises awareness of issues. I do not see – and he’s not tried to show me – that he has the capacity to lead the heady, complicated and messy process of governing at the highest level. I don’t see that he has the capacity to talk to all the key players involved in an issue, whether he likes them or not, present himself maturely and compromise where necessary. It’s important to note that Hillary sponsored and passed ten pieces of significant legislation during her eight years in the Senate, while Bernie sponsored and passed…one, in nine years.[7] We can argue about the relative merits of their legislative ideas until the cows come home and the last Florida vote gets counted, but the process of significantly reforming society simply must begin with the ability to make any change at all.

Luckily, choosing a leader based on their ability to accomplish change in the current environment, whether that be in a company or in Congress, in no way inherently conflicts with choosing a leader based on the change you want to see. Both factors have to be weighed together. Always. No one [who has anything substantive to say] is asking Sanders supporters to compromise their values for the sake of electability or to downplay their dreams for the sake of the less emotionally compelling pragmatic choice. I think it’s high time to look beyond superficial platform specifics and consider who best marries the Leftist direction of our political ideals with an ability to make real progress in that direction. Whatever you think about his end game, Bernie hasn’t demonstrated an ability to make progress.

Feminism.

Finally, I want to talk about what it means to be a figurehead and what this means for women. I hear young women far and wide renouncing the idea that they should consider gender as a factor in their vote this year, much less give serious credence to the idea that Hillary’s election would represent a meaningful victory for women. And yet Bernie’s appeal, to many of the same voters, is rooted in the radical ideals he represents – not in any display of a nuanced understanding of the world, nor in a track record of successfully spearheading important legislation. He represents a tantalizing unchecked idealism; he represents a far Left answer to the GOP’s startlingly far Right swing. Why, then, is it somehow more perverted or simplistic to support or even revere Hillary because she represents, among other qualities and policies that have always made her a goddamned brilliant strategist, an enormous advancement for women?

In other words, candidates stand for more than their policy desires and plans; they stand for values and ideals – and this is okay! It is okay, and in fact it can be important, to vote for someone based on what they symbolize, in addition to more concrete factors like their policies and experience, because symbolic victories are also meaningful concrete steps. When Barack Obama became president in 2008, he didn’t just vaguely represent the idea of advancing racial equality; he provided undeniable evidence that an American black man can be smart, educated and capable enough to ascend to the highest position of leadership in the country and, arguably, the world. He is both a concrete and symbolic representation of achievement. As such, he made it that much harder for anyone to believe black people are inferior or unworthy of the same achievements as their white peers. In 2016, we might like to think no reasonable person would harbor racist ideas or really believe women are inherently less capable of leadership than men. But many people do, and we have to prove them wrong. Proof is essential to liberation.

I think many women react against the vulgarity buried in the idea of having something to prove. No one wants to go through life with a chip on their shoulder, and it’s fairly easy now for many young women to sail through a comfortable, unambitious life without giving serious thought to the matters of equality that continue to hold us collectively back. Of course, to some extent it’s a matter of timing; we should see more women in leadership positions as the generations that have been encouraged to pursue leadership continue to come of age. But nothing “just” happens, especially in politics. If we want female leaders in office, we have to actively elect qualified female leaders into office. It’s not enough to claim that women are as capable as men and go along our merry way nitpicking their generational differences, mocking their appearances and buying into exaggerated scandals – as women are still so wont to do to one another each and every day.

I find it incredibly telling that women who have spent more years in the workforce, even those who started out feeling widely liberated and encouraged, are significantly more drawn to a female presidential candidate than younger women who are just starting out in their careers.[8] I certainly don’t go through my day-to-day life feeling like a victim, and for that I’m grateful to the generations of feminists before me (including, prominently, Hillary Clinton). But based on my own experience, corroborated by the statistics and experiences shared in this article, I feel like I can’t “un-know” the highly entrenched sexism that burns beneath the surface (and sometimes engulfs the surface) of everyday interactions, most clearly in professional settings. It makes so much sad sense to me that young feminists who have experienced only the beginnings of the professional world would focus narrowly on clearly defined political issues that they feel confident they can tackle, while those who have spent time in the workforce feel the strong presence of more insidious forces at play and understand that we do, plain and simple, have something to prove.

And for those of us who feel so strongly the effects of workplace – or any place! – sexism, Hillary offers such a welcome opportunity to make a powerful statement in a mature and effective manner.  We don’t have to be desperate or whiny about proving ourselves, but we do have to participate in our own liberation. Nobody else is going to do it for us.  I’m not voting for Hillary because she’s a female. I’m voting for Hillary because she’s a FEMALE WHO is smart, capable and experienced enough to demonstrate to America and to the world how impressively powerful a woman can be. This is absolutely one very important reason, in a collection of powerful reasons, to support her candidacy.

On a final note, I think a widespread backlash against one of the most qualified presidential nominees of all times, standing to be the first female President of the United States, can only have a subconscious chilling effect on the very women who should be encouraged and inspired to jump into the ring. If an exhaustive resume of supremely relevant political experience, a literal[9] lifelong record of standing up for progressive change in the face of powerful opposition, and one of the most acute political minds of our times is not enough to get you elected president as a woman…what is? What, ever, will be? How long will we have to wait for another comparable female contender?

In Conclusion…

There are many more factors at play that I don’t have the time or energy to address. I could tack them onto the end here, but that wouldn’t be saying much more than leaving them be. So many components of political opinion just come down to instinct, for all of us. I’ve often felt unhappily divided from my peers, for example, as the only Hillary supporter in the room who doesn’t find her cold, unnatural or robotic. I find her charismatic and natural, within the bounds of requisite – and admirable – political poise. But I can’t change anyone’s mind about that, just as I can’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree that the “investigations” into her e-mail use and the few other scandals the Right has characteristically cooked up are complete and utter bullshit. I could link you to articles that support my interpretation, but I’m sure there are an equal number of sources that trump up the supposed issues. And I’m really not interested.

So I’ve just tried to convey my more strongly held convictions that have a basis in fact or philosophy and that might add some unique angles to the discussion. I hope I’ve at least provoked some new thoughts. I hope more people will join me in genuine excitement over this impressive female intellect and leader.

And I’ll end by plagiarizing my own Primary day Facebook post because I’m tired now, and I guess I just can’t think of a better way to put it, myself:

I fucking love Hillary. Not because I’m some pre-ordained die-hard who has randomly decided she can do no wrong, but because she’s the best candidate for president I’ve ever seen, because she’s a much-needed inspiration for women and because the apologies and concessions I’ve consistently heard from fellow supporters are just more political absurdity. I only recently realized this, but Hillary Clinton is the only woman (short of my mom) whom I consider a role model, and she’s the only woman I’ve ever wanted to be. I’m proud and excited to vote for her again, and I just hope I’ll be able to do it in the General Election this time around, alongside many enthusiastic peers.

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/28/upshot/the-senate-votes-that-divided-hillary-clinton-and-bernie-sanders.html?_r=3

[2] http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/hillary-clinton-was-liberal-hillary-clinton-is-liberal/

[3] Well, that’s the idea

[4] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2016/02/hillary_clinton_told_the_truth_about_her_iraq_war_vote.html

Also, Ctrl+F “Mrs. Clinton” to read the full text of her speech to congress: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-2002-10-10/html/CREC-2002-10-10-pt1-PgS10233-7.htm

[5] http://www.raisetheminimumwage.com/pages/minimum-wage-state

[6] https://www.sba.gov/content/small-business-trends-impact

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/07/hillary-clinton-was-a-more-effective-lawmaker-than-bernie-sanders/

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/campaign-stops/why-sexism-at-the-office-makes-women-love-hillary-clinton.html?_r=1

[9] Demonstration of the proper usage of “literal”

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All Men First Must Live: Reflections on Game of Thrones S4E10

I didn’t expect much of the Game of Thrones Season 4 finale. Sandwiched between an entire episode dedicated to the Wall and nine long upcoming months of radio silence before Season 5, I figured the final episode would treat us to a bland series of character snapshots and perhaps a few cliffhangers that, being nearly a year from satiation and tied to the frustrating ruts in which many characters found themselves stuck by the end of Episode 9, would just leave me grumpy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once again, the writers of the show (aka Lords of the Universe/Masters of the Craft/Benioff & Weiss) exceeded my best expectations. Not only did they bring us pivotal changes in every one of the primary plot points of the show, but the protagonists tied to those plots matured or solidified in some of the most profound ways we have yet seen. Continue reading

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I (Still) Heart NY: Reflections on the Creative Life in the Big Apple

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the “goodbye New York” essay. Apparently, this well-stocked genre is taking a turn for the cynical as the cost of living in New York City continues to skyrocket. Alarm bells are sounding in the blogosphere and beyond: New York is squeezing out young, creative-minded individuals! New York is becoming an effete playground for the commercial elite.

For my part, I wrote about my move to the city a year after the Fung Wah bus dumped me and two enormous suitcases on a squabbling corner of Chinatown; now, five years later and safely uptown from Canal, I find myself again reflecting on the city that has shaped my early adult life. I’m not ready to write a goodbye essay yet (or, I think, anytime soon), but as someone who still feels creatively fulfilled and challenged here, I am inclined to add my more positive voice to the mix of increasingly hostile adieus. Continue reading

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Parker & Steve – a Web-series Review

As a cleverly self-described “bromcom,” the new web series “Parker and Steve” follows two guy friends in New York City who spend their time hustling for rent money, looking for love (or something like it), and ending up in sticky situations that they invariably botch into stickier messes. While the premise and plotlines fit snugly into a well-worn genre of bro-based comedy, the 5-7 minute webisode format necessitates some scaling back in the genre’s typically overblown plotlines. The result is an interesting combination of bro humor and wry “Louie”-like charm. In fact, I find that “Parker and Steve” does a good job of bringing the bromcom to life with quirky side characters, witty one-liners and a realistic New York City vibe that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to get by in this magical land of tiny apartments, soaring rent and eccentric individuals all around. 

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Time Stands Still: A (somewhat belated) Review

The new Broadway hit, “Time Stands Still,” written by Donald Margulies and directed by Daniel Sullivan, is both a simple story and an elegant portrayal of the major predicaments of modern life.  The play focuses on two ambitious humanitarian professionals who are thrown into an unexpected, reflection-rousing reprieve from routine that quickly becomes a significant turning point in their lives.  With only four characters total, it is the dialogue and interplay between the four, more than any exciting plot-line, that lays bare the contradictions we all face in a globalized world where both opportunity and suffering abound.  Continue reading

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