Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Angela Hicks

Angela Hicks is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing programme in 2016 and was one of the storytellers for Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop 2017. She is currently working on her first novel.

 


 

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

 

As part of the Harry Potter generation who grew up with the original book series, I was naturally interested when, in 2016, J.K. Rowling announced a new sequel of sorts in the form of a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (written by Jack Thorne, with story by Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany). But I was also apprehensive–would the magic hold after all these years? I resisted buying a copy of the script for several months; the seventh book ended with the line ‘all was well’–did I really want to discover that that might not be the case? A slew of positive reviews from the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, and other mainstream newspapers convinced me to give it a go. Nevertheless, I was aware before I picked up the script that a portion of book-fans disliked Cursed Child, muttering that it was little better than fan fiction and resolutely refusing to view it as canon no matter what Rowling said. Thus I embarked on the task of reading the script with much anticipation and a certain degree of trepidation.

The first thing to say about CC is that the plot, in the broadest terms, is fine. It’s a time travelling romp; there are tense scenes and humorous moments. The concept of a character travelling to the past and thereby altering the future is not new (think the Back to the Future trilogy), but CC manages to be an enjoyable narrative for all it lacks in originality. Time travel plots often suffer from their sheer illogicality–if one stops to consider what’s really happening, things tend to fall apart pretty quickly–but CC has so much going on that there’s no time to think, much less care, about whether it holds together. One doesn’t dwell too much on what paradoxes are being created, nor how likely certain things connected to Voldemort are, because you’re caught up in the story. Similarly, it just about gets away with most of its more outlandish moments (such as the transformation of the Trolley Witch in 1:11) because of this fast pace as well as the quick and often light-hearted dialogue.

That dialogue (along with the stage effects) is probably the element which translates least well from the stage to the page, since we’re given no sense from the script alone how certain lines should be delivered. As just mentioned, there are a lot of one-liners or rapid fire exchanges (predominantly between Albus and Scorpius, but also between Ron and Hermione). It makes for a fun read, although there’s the sense that the writers were more concerned with making their protagonists witty and amusing than in having them speak like normal people.

There’s also the peppering of colloquialisms and slang throughout the script. On the one hand, making them sound more like today’s teenagers is a way of differentiating the younger generation of witches and wizards from those in the original series. However, part of the reason that the Harry Potter books have stood the test of time (20 years since the publication of Philosopher’s Stone) is probably because they manage to not be period-specific–they exist in their own private sphere outside most real world influences, and they avoid obvious time-markers such as slang. I doubt CC will age so well.

I also wonder how future generations of playgoers will react to several of the character portrayals. To begin with, there is Albus and Scorpius’ friendship/relationship. The script spends a lot of time and energy setting them up as a couple before finally deciding that they’re both straight. Naturally a very deep friendship between people of any gender can exist without it needing to transform into love; however, the script actively promotes the idea of their blossoming romance for nine-tenths of the narrative. One reason I’m upset that Albus and Scorpius don’t become a couple is because of the blatant disregard for the author-reader contract. I would be annoyed that CC laid this groundwork and then didn’t follow through regardless of whether it was about a gay relationship, or whether it was about Albus getting a pet dragon/becoming an animagus/introducing Irn Bru to the wizarding world. Following the principle of Chekov’s Gun, when a piece of fiction sets something up, your expectations are raised and if–as is the case with CC–it doesn’t deliver, the reader ends up feeling frustrated and betrayed.

In a less literary vein, it would have been nice to have the leading characters being a gay couple. CC as a stage-play has rightly been praised for its representation of minorities through its casting of black actors in major roles (Noma Dumezweni was the first actor to play CC’s Hermione in the West End, followed by Rakie Ayola when Dumezweni reprised that roll on Broadway). However, these casting decisions were made by individual productions and aren’t guaranteed to always be the same; it would’ve been better if the script itself included representation of minority characters. Moreover, leading with a gay couple would have worked well with CC’s plot: the play focuses on people not fitting in and being pressured by society, and other’s assumptions about them, so it would have made sense to add coming to terms with one’s sexuality into the piece. I feel like several opportunities were missed with Albus and Scorpius in this respect.

There are also problems with other characters. There were elements of disappointment with the ‘old cast’, as it were, from the books. Some of these are more overt, such as the fact that Harry–someone who was always portrayed as a caring, well-balanced individual who just happened to be fated to fight the Dark Lord–has transformed into a grumpy and distant parent. Others only occur on reflection; it’s slightly galling to learn that an unmarried Hermione is considerably meaner than a married one. It’s also disappointing to discover that Ron and Hermione, again people who in the original series were generally depicted as nice children who weren’t particularly prejudiced, have raised a snob like Rose.

However, the most egregious discrepancy between the original series and the book with regards to characters is Cedric Diggory. Although he appears for a limited time only in Goblet of Fire (and is briefly mentioned in earlier books), he is clearly depicted as a good person–he helps Harry figure out the second challenge and accepts Harry’s proposal to be joint winners of the tournament. In CC, however, his innate goodness is apparently so flimsy that he turns completely to the dark side when he’s laughed at. Not only is it a shame that probably the most famous member of the often least well-regarded house turns out to be evil, but it’s also infuriating that no one comments on how stupid his reasoning is. Being laughed at is never a good reason to commit mass murder, and I really wish that someone in CC had remarked about how messed up Cedric turns out to be, instead of tacitly endorsing his behaviour. Or better yet, not made him so messed up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to change Cedric from incompetent Death Eater into incompetent good guy–Neville could easily have died shielding Cedric, or in friendly fire from him. Instead, the script goes out of its way to portray Cedric as someone who is only nice when people are nice to him. Moreover, the audience/reader’s knowledge that Cedric became a Death Eater really damages the ending of CC–Harry visits Cedric’s grave and has a sort of poignant moment with his son about how he goes there to tell Cedric he’s sorry (4:15). That would be a beautiful ending if only we weren’t all thinking that Harry is wrong to be sorry because Cedric would have probably turned out to be a terrible person in this time-stream too.

Perhaps my expectations about Cursed Child were too high, both in terms of the script itself, and also in its ability to bring back my childhood. I certainly found it enjoyable while I was reading it; as a play script, especially one primarily aimed at a teenage audience, it was a quick read, and it was nice to romp through the wizarding world again, albeit briefly. But once I’d finished, the illogicalities and odd choices started to pile up, while my regrets at the script’s missed opportunities, particularly with regards to characters, became harder to ignore. While a lot of fans of the original series have embraced Cursed Child, the vocal minority describing it as nothing more than fan fiction remains undaunted. For all that I want to love this new addition to the Harry Potter universe, I cannot help but regretfully side with those who prefer to view the play as an Aunt Muriel of the books–invited to family gatherings when it has to be, but generally best left forgotten.


You can follow Angela on her Twitter, @MS_a_hicks. More of her work is accessible here.

Personal Essay: Dear Body by Jonatha Kottler

Having previously worked as a university lecturer in Albuquerque, Jonatha Kottler now lives and writes primarily in Europe. Jonatha was one of Edinburgh’s 2016 Story Shop writers and has contributed to ECAS, to the Dangerous Women Project, and to Edinburgh’s Write Like a Grrrl community. Her work has also been published by The Guardian and by 404 Ink in their hit collection, Nasty Women. She is presently writing her first novel, and one of her essays is slated to appear in an upcoming collection entitled No Filter.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


Dear Body

 

Dear Body,

I recently wrote two articles about being fat. Being fat isn’t new for me, but writing articles about it is. One was published in a collection of essays and was subsequently picked up by a major website in the US. They wanted to re-publish it to help promote the book. It had a moderated comments section and the things people said weren’t all that bad–mean things that I expected, but nothing as mean as I’d heard about, or seen written about other women online (like those who dared to read their own poetry on YouTube and were threatened with death—levels of criticism that Charles Dickens never had to deal with).

I wrote the second article for a major UK newspaper, and there were a lot of comments–about a thousand at the time that I decided I had read enough–and that came as quite a shock to me. They were still not at the level of what some people have come to expect (for doing things like simply playing or writing about video games). I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the comments–I would take the high road and not read them–but of course, I did read some of them. I was glad that I did—there were many friendly suggestions for places I might consider looking for clothes (it was about plus-size shopping) and some people who felt that I articulated things which they couldn’t say themselves. Things I wrote meant something to someone, and that’s part of why we write things, isn’t it? To share our ideas and experiences and hope they connect with someone else.

But then there was one man’s comment–the one that made me wish I’d never looked at any of them, made me even wish I’d missed out on all the kind and important things that others said. It was a comment about my size, and obesity, and how I look and whether or not I should be allowed to take up the space that I take in the world. He read the piece I wrote and went looking for other mentions of me on the internet (I imagine he found some old comments by my students, too!). When he found a link of me at a reading, on YouTube, he linked back to it in the comments section of the article and said, “This is what this author looks like. I don’t think we should normalize this.”

I was caught in this spiral in my head where I couldn’t help but imagine: he read what I wrote–a piece about my own life experiences–and had been so upset about it, disgusted or angry enough to go out and Google me (it doesn’t take long, I know, but I cannot imagine bothering to do this after reading something in the newspaper. After all, it was the first sunny Saturday in April). He’d had a “ha HA!” moment when he found me, looked at my image–on a day when I was pretty proud and happy, doing my first public reading–and decided my image was an excellent exhibit to submit into evidence in the trial, The People v. How Jonatha Kottler Looks. He’d linked the piece in, to save others the arduous task of finding it. He’d felt that he had a point so trenchant that it only needed the 1,000 words my picture stood for to make it.

I try to keep a positive perspective. I’ve had lots of lovely comments and messages–a woman who used the articles to reconnect with her sister and speak honestly on this topic for the first time. My words broke down a wall between them.

But I was thinking about that link. The case against me being normal. Judged guilty by the comments section of your local newspaper and the sentence pronounced: your words don’t matter because your body isn’t normal. And I’m the one who let him in, invited him to have a lovely place at the banquet in my mind, where the smorgasbord includes my self-worth, my dignity, and my desire to put words in public, and he can devour as much as he wants. All for the low, low price of a Google and a copy and paste.

How utterly fucked up is that? He’s fucked up–a moralising asshole who judges and destroys in a few clicks what took much longer to create. And me, I’m fucked up, too, giving him the comfy chair in my psyche.

So, no more. Last call for assholes. You don’t have to go home, but you aren’t allowed to take up space in my mind, my heart. I will not populate myself with the members of the comment section, or be one of those people, either. I am writing a new comments section: the one my body deserves.

Dear Body,

You have taken some serious shit, my friend, from the outside world, and also from me. This is a letter of apology to you, for things I’ve thought, and things I’ve done, and things other people have said that I have let burr against you. I pledge to protect to you from this, to be your armour, and to shine that armour with my words of praise.

Dear Body,

You are my companion–we have been through everything together. You have held me and taken me places, all the places of my life.

Miracle-Strong Body,

You have battled germs, and made the tears for me to weep when only tears would do. You are there, strong to hold me up, or tired to drag my buzzing head down to rest. From inside you have cradled my thoughts, and laughed to dizziness and known pleasure, somehow, without any help from my Hamlet-swirls of endless thought and decision-indecision-regret.

Dear Body,

In spite of all of that, you turned some cells into another person, you transformed food into tiny earlobes, and eyelashes, and a brain, and toenails and a heart muscle. Sometimes old brain here has trouble choosing dinner from a menu, and yet you, quietly, steadfastly, made a completely separate and marvellous human being, and brought him into the world, and fed him and held his hand and held the book of stories and read the words over and again. And all of this while keeping me going, heart, brain, toenails, all moving along.

Dear Body,

I have treated you unkindly, giving you too much of some things and not enough of others, and criticizing you all the while. Reducing you into segments to appraise minutely–eyes too narrow, thighs too wide. I have made you into a letter of complaint: the person next to me has got a much better nose, why is she so thin, so beautiful, so glossy, so unwrinkled, when what I got was this.

Dear Body,

Recently I described you as an old reliable car–you keep running but if I try to explain you to someone it is as a list of quirks: the passenger window doesn’t open and you can’t listen to the radio and use the windscreen wipers at the same time…

But, Dear Body,

You aren’t a list of complaints, or a series of regrets, or a mass of scar tissue, or a thing to be judged. You are GLORIOUS–a home and a companion and the only one who has been with me my whole life, and instead of wishing you were thin and unwrinkled and not sore, instead of being a quirky car that I’d keep until it wore out but would never buy in this condition, instead of all of that, I will say:

Dear Body,

Thank you. Perpetual motion chug chugging heart, expanding lungs, gentle touching fingertips, blinking eyes. Thank you. You deserve my gratitude and my care and my shining armour against those who would hurt you with sticks and stones or words. Dear Body.


Jonatha can be followed on Twitter.

Workshop: American Gods, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They set out to workshop Starz’ new series, American Gods, shortly after the show’s debut; once they’d completed its first season, the two conducted the following discussion to express their thoughts.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of American Gods. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

C: As is tradition, we’ll begin by specifying our knowledge of the source material for this show. Angela and I have both read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (in its original 2001 version, rather than Gaiman’s preferred text–the slightly longer tenth-anniversary edition). I don’t think either of us are Gaiman fanatics, but we were both interested in this show and we’d planned on watching and workshopping it for a long time. I was super enthusiastic about this going in; I’d been reading a lot about the show–interviews, promotional materials, that sort of thing–and it all looked promising.

A: American Gods felt like a good book to adapt for TV. It’s a long tome so they had plenty of source material; it has one main story narrative–Shadow’s journey with Mr Wednesday; it has a lot of interesting characters. But the book also has weaknesses–times when characters are underdeveloped, for instance–which I felt that a show could change and redress quite successfully.

C: Yeah, agreed. [sighs] With that said, having watched the first season, I have to admit I’m colossally disappointed in the results. I don’t think this is the weakest show we’ve workshopped but I’m overwhelmingly disheartened by the end product. The show has many positive aspects, but its execution felt wholly underwhelming.

A: Underwhelming is a good word to use for this show. It has the source material, it sets things up, but somehow it fails to deliver, leaving me pretty indifferent with the end result.

C: Now we have the challenge of considering why that is. We do these as workshops rather than reviews because we’re interested in looking at the way certain things work–or conversely don’t work–in shows, and how they can be fixed.

A: That’s part of the reason, I think, that we review the first seasons of shows–because they can often still be in that developmental stage, finding their feet and working things out.

C: Right, and because it means we get to watch lots of new shows.

A: [laughs] That too. But back to AG–what do you think the main reason neither of us were…super excited at the end of this first season?

C: I think if I were to describe the show in one word–and I don’t think this word is necessarily a damning thing–it’d be “indulgent”. That’s true of the book as well–particularly Gaiman’s preferred edition–and on the one hand the detail is often very visceral and evocative. But the negative of this approach is that pacing can feel laggardly and blunted by the excess of interjections and information in the main narrative. The takeaway the show should have had from the book was, put bluntly, the story needed more conciseness and forward momentum, but if anything, it’s worse than the books in this respect. The show had the chance to improve on some of the book’s vulnerabilities, but it didn’t learn from those lessons at all.

A: I think when you talk about overindulgence and slow pacing, it falls into two separate categories, both of which are detrimental to the show. Firstly there’s the drawn out cinematography which overemphasizes many details. We’re shown a gramophone, then we’re shown it being set to play, then we’re shown the needle start, and then we watch the record turn… Any tension is undercut by boredom as the audience waits for things to happen.

C: It’s clearly a conscious choice by the show, but I think you’re right–it doesn’t work, at least not to the extent they use it.

A: And secondly, they add in even more material which doesn’t appear in the book. And it’s not a short book to start with. Some additions work–I think Vulcan as a gun producer nicely brings it into 21st century America. But then we get an entire episode–the seventh out of eight, so really close to the end, when we should be building up to that big finale–which is all about how the Irish fairies came to America via the tales of a random woman called Essie. It just feels like superfluous filler.

C: To be fair, the story behind the seventh episode exists within the books; it’s just not as overemphasized. I expect the Essie narrative was included to try to create a more multitudinous, mystical atmosphere, but given the pacing already felt slow before then, it was exhausting. In some cases this same issue doomed more interesting ideas, too, which is a shame–like how we’re given more backstory for Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife. It’s a nice idea to develop her story, but they dedicate an enormous amount of time to it without giving it any drive.

A: I didn’t think the Laura stuff worked. This is one of those cases where less is more. Adding in so much doesn’t make her sympathetic or engaging, it makes her less interesting. Also, by showing her so much from the start, it undercuts the power and impact which she has in the book when she returns to Shadow’s life.

C: I think we disagree about that to some extent, but I do agree that Laura’s enigmatic agency, which really comes through in the book, feels obfuscated by the show’s excess. From a workshopping perspective, you’re right; there are whole shots, scenes and pretty much whole episodes which could all be heavily cut or removed entirely without the audience feeling they’d lost something conducive to the show’s central premise.

A: Agreed. And I also think that they have too many narrative threads which aren’t streamlined or interwoven.

C: Like Czernobog–we meet him in what might be my favorite sequence in the show, and he seemingly joins the core cast, only to never show up in this season again. The book is already sprawling, but the show takes this to a new level and it’s so frustrating. In the book Czernobog’s there in the famous ‘House on the Rock’ scene for the big reveal about the gods–the plot’s crux–which is where I assumed they were going to end the first season of the show. Instead they don’t get to this natural focal point, which would have established the show’s goals and stakes really effectively in a poignant finale. They get seven-eighths of the way there, but because they’re moving so slowly, they don’t make it–but they still want the content from that scene, so they shoehorn it in earlier, lessening the impact of those big, exciting reveals.

A: If they’d cut the Essie episode, they could’ve easily reached House on the Rock, and it would have been nice to tie in Czernobog and Mr Nancy again.

C: Exactly. It’s… it’s disappointing, to say the least. But, on a happier note, I want to touch on all the positive things about the series too–some of the additions and alterations the show makes are really great. Some minor characters are reworked from cameo appearances into much more fleshed-out roles; for example, the character of Salim (played by Omid Abtahi) has only a minor role in the source material, but he is transformed in the show into a more crucial (and interesting) figure. I wish the show had included more of him.

A: That’s true. I also think the depiction of Media (Gillian Anderson) is very well done and an occasion where the show’s penchant for stylization is effective and suits the character.

C: As always, we can’t fault the casting of the show. Anderson does terrifically in the role of Media.

A: And, as mentioned above, the show’s addition of the character of Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) and his acceptance of the new world order also worked well. The show does a good job of updating itself while partnering certain atmospheres with certain characters. The same is true of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), whose role has been nicely expanded from the book. The show takes time to set up why some of the old gods take the deals offered by the new regime of Mr World et al., something which the book doesn’t manage as effectively.

C: The show also makes sound choices and changes with respect to Shadow himself (played excellently by Ricky Whittle). He’s far more vocal than his book counterpart–an expected change given the different mediums; as a result we get a bit more of his immediate reactions to situations he and Wednesday find themselves in. Shadow’s been adapted well for the screen and Whittle does a terrific job of bringing him to life.

A: You’re right; keeping him predominantly silent wouldn’t work–though Whittle is very talented and gets a lot across with facial expressions and body language. I found this Shadow more likable and nuanced.

C: Another positive part of the TV series–my favorite segment from the season, which I touched on earlier–is the chess game between Shadow and Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Not only are the individual performances top-notch, but the atmosphere in that scene is excellent–and to give credit where credit is due, when this show is good, it’s good, and it certainly knows how to establish atmosphere. Moments like that are incredibly satisfying. It’s just a shame that too often the show hasn’t considered the book’s vulnerabilities or learnt from mistakes made by other shows of its kind.

A: Such as its often iffy portrayals of women? The book also isn’t always excellent at its female characters, but it was admittedly written some time ago–TV shows today should get less sympathy, given they have a chance to modernize.

C: I think the way this show tackles some issues like race and sexuality is quite effective, but yeah, I wouldn’t really say it tackles anything relating to women or femininity.

A: I don’t know that it really is that good at portraying different races and different cultures–it has quite a cherry-picking approach to representing their mythologies which perhaps means it veers closer to voyeurism than true representation. But to focus on women for the moment–there are certainly some issues regarding its portrayal of women. There’s Laura, who sort of… asserts her dominance through espousing a fondness for sex, and through distancing herself from other women in this regard.

C: Yeah, you can tell a guy wrote a lot of that.

A: Yes. It’s… it’s whatever–lazy, under-developed, out-of-touch, cheap. And then there’s the voice-over line uttered by Mr Ibis of “Intelligence has never been uncommon among women”, which is at best weird, and at worst incredibly patronizing and insulting. It’s one of those lines you can’t quite believe that all of the writers, editors and actors read and thought was good.

C: It’s one line, but it’s an immensely disappointing line indicative of overarching issues with the script.

A: Speaking of immensely disappointing…

C: Sure.

A: That opening scene of episode one–the prologue–the scene which is meant to hook viewers in. I hated it. It’s one of those many times where the show’s languorous style really doesn’t work. It could have been a powerful scene, but it ends up being tedious and, as is so often the case in this show, raising too many questions which it has no interest in answering–for example, why do the Vikings, when they decide to fight to please the gods, fight each other and not their enemies inland? I think that the book’s opening–of Shadow in prison–is a better beginning, and more coherent.

C: I had fewer problems with the show’s opening, but yes, if you’re going to change things from the source material, then you need to be damn sure that it’s better; this show doesn’t manage that.

A: And about the show’s ending, which, as you mentioned earlier, is not that similar to the corresponding scene in the source material. I got the sense watching AG with you that, while I was annoyed at it from pretty early on, you gradually lost patience with it throughout the season. But did that dramatic finale redeem it for you at all?

C: Sadly, it didn’t. This show takes so much time–a whole season–to establish one of the central tenets of the story: for the gods, belief is power, with worship strengthening them and disinterest making them atrophy. And yet the show repeatedly overrides said rules; in cinematic situations this central rule is thrown out the window. The show ends with Easter (or rather, Ostara)–who is described as having only a sort of proxy-power at present through her alliance with the modernist cabal–essentially depriving America of all its crops and agriculture. This is a much greater display of power than any other god or deity has shown in the show thus far, so it’s disorienting, given that Ostara has supposedly been living off of referential praise and not true worship as the show asserts. The rules don’t seem to matter all that much.

A: I had similar questions about AG’s internal logic in other places too. For example, it adds in deities like Jesus who are still worshipped today. The plot of “old, forgotten gods versus technological dominion” is good, but through adding in religions which are still followed in the present day, the premise starts to get a lot more confusing and woolly–why does the character who believes in Allah end up with the Egyptian god then, and so on? I think having ‘modern’ gods was an unnecessary move which clutters things up. The show would’ve been better to shore up and improve what they already had rather than introducing more partially-explained concepts to the narrative.

C: I actually disagree there–I do think they could have made the inclusion of the different representations of Christ work, had they exerted a bit more effort. But you’re right–the world’s rules are very unclear in the show, which is disheartening given that it has time to make them clear. The show has plenty of source material–what it needs now is gumption.

A: And to return to your comment about the finale–yes, if it’s going to invent an ending which diverges quite heavily from the book, it needs to have increased its pace and plot a lot, because otherwise viewers have too much time to consider plot-holes, and to find faults in what you’re watching. The show should either have done a whistle-stop tour of action, or a very pared-down adaptation with respect to characters, but with a lot more depth. Instead it fails on both fronts.

C: Yes indeed; though there are benefits to the show’s indulgent approach, this indulgence causes significant problems in relation to depth and pacing. To go back to the show’s opening, we spoke about the prologue, but not the credits; I think–if this isn’t too cliché a thing to say–the opening credits are emblematic of the show with respect to overarching flaws. They aren’t ugly, but they’re excessively long, and don’t do much other than take up time. This show has a very specific visual aesthetic–one achieved predominantly through a lot of vibrant colors and CGI–which actually works well by and large; some of the animated sequences are very pretty. But it all adds to the feeling that, for all the show’s glitz, there isn’t enough substance beneath it; it’s all frosting with no cake underneath. And look: I understand that this show is beginning with some preset laurels it can rest on. Similar shows are doing well on TV; they clearly paced this out to have multiple seasons; Gaiman’s book is already beyond celebrated. But their desire to set up a long-running saga has resulted in a bumpy introduction.

A: You said, after the end of the last episode, that you’d grudgingly watch a second season of this show; I’m not sure I would. The show isn’t abysmal–as you argued, the visual style works at times, and some scenes are wonderfully atmospheric–but I gave it eight hours and it couldn’t bring it together for me.

C: That’s tough, but fair. Though I quite liked the book and though I had immense hopes for this show, I’m not sure it deserves the second season which will assuredly follow this one down the line. Even if they failed to learn from the book’s missteps, I hope the writing team behind the show can learn from the mistakes they made when starting out; moving forward, I hope American Gods can find the momentum and substance its first season lacked.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of The Last Kingdom is accessible here.

Commentary: Self-Publish and Be Damned by William McIntyre

William (Willie) McIntyre is a criminal defence lawyer and the author of the Best Defence series, a continuing saga of Scottish criminal law novels enveloped in themes of noir, wry humour, and social commentary. Having been both published and self-published, Willie is readily familiar with the ins and outs of the Scottish publishing scene.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

Self-Publish and Be Damned

 

At the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, there was recently an exhibition celebrating the 30th year of Ian Rankin’s famous fictional creation, Detective Inspector John Rebus. One of the items on show is the first rejection letter the author received from a publisher. Brilliant. I know if I’d had Mr Rankin’s good fortune I’d be sending those rejecting-publishers a Christmas card from my yacht in the Caribbean every year. Not that I’m knocking publishers. They’re running businesses–they need to use their best judgement and sometimes they get it wrong (but, seriously, Inspector Rebus? There’s wrong and there’s really wrong).

Speaking as someone who submitted his own book (Relatively Guilty, first in the Best Defence Series) to a number of publishers several years ago, it’s the ones who don’t give writers a fair chance that annoy me. One of my first submissions was to a publisher whose guidelines refused electronic transmission–it might have been the 21st Century, but they wanted it in size 12 font on paper, double-spaced and with one inch margins. That’s a lot of ink and paper for a 95k word book. Fortunately I ran an office with a large stationery cupboard; I printed it off, put it inside a large brown envelope and placed it and my covering letter in one of those large grey indestructible plastic bags, along with a similar plastic bag stamped and addressed to me for return of the manuscript if, inconceivably, it was to be rejected. And returned it duly was… more than three months later, with a standard rejection letter. This surprised me on two counts: firstly, I thought it was a good book (admittedly, I’m biased) and, secondly, it was clear to me that the brown envelope containing the manuscript had never been opened. Unlike Mr Rankin, I didn’t keep the letter, and, although I don’t remember the date, what I do remember is that it was the day I thought, ‘Stuff this’ (or words to that effect) and self-published the book on Kindle, where five years later it remains my best seller.

Many traditional publishers complain about those who self-publish. One never hears of artists being criticised for self-hanging-paintings-on-a-wall, or would-be popstars for self-singing-to-folk-in-a-pub. Literature is different. Publishers and agents view themselves as the gatekeepers to quality, and that’s fine, so long as the gate is kept open and your book, or even part of it, is actually read by someone–and you don’t mind waiting… and waiting… and waiting.

On the other hand, publishing an e-book is straightforward and immediate. The finished product may not be quite as well-polished as it would be had it gone through editing and proofreading by professionals, but then again, one doesn’t have to hang on for months only to receive a pro forma saying how much the publisher ‘adored *insert title of book* but don’t think it’s a good fit for us’. Moreover, it was self-publishing my books on Amazon that acted as a portal for me to being traditionally published by the discerning folk at Sandstone Press.

If the ink is in your blood, you will write. Do not be ashamed to self-publish. Let the world see what you’ve written. Somebody might like it. I don’t mean to come over all Gray’s Elegy about things, but think how many potential Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings there are out there who can’t wait forever, hoping that some astute publisher will take a chance on them. Think how many budding Ian Rankins have given up on that rejected manuscript which could have made them famous, or at least could have made them a living?

Do it yourself. Publishers don’t always get it right. Mr Rankin has that in writing.


More of Willie’s writing is accessible via the Best Defence website. The next book in the Best Defence series, Last Will, arrives in stores this November.

Interview: Chrys on Game of Thrones by Calder Hudson

Chrys is an online exegete known for her distinct blend of humor and insight. Several years ago, she began her popular series Chrys Reviews, in which she analyses TV shows through episodic recaps. These are presented as a compilation of stills from the show with her thoughts as subtitles (often satirizing the characters and scenes being portrayed). Chrys’ commentary thoroughly dissects the episode, paying special attention to dialogue, relationships between characters, and the (sometimes unabashed) mishandling of tropes. Chrys’ reviews are well-received on multiple platforms, including Tumblr, Reddit, and Imgur. Over time, she’s incorporated a number of different TV shows (including Westworld, Sleepy Hollow, and How to Get Away with Murder) into her Reviews series; she’s reviewed more Game of Thrones than anything else, with thirty-five episodes of the show’s sixty episodes covered.

In this interview, The Ogilvie’s Chief Editor Calder Hudson speaks with Chrys about her review process as well as her thoughts on HBO’s Game of Thrones and its upcoming seventh season. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

CALDER: What was it that first made you decide to do the Chrys Reviews series? With respect to the screenshot-style, did you have the format and presentation planned out in advance, or did your method develop over time?

CHRYS: I wanted to make people laugh and to challenge myself as a writer (or as a friend lovingly says, “shitpost generator”). The screenshot-style recap has been a Tumblr staple for quite some time, and while I’d never actually seen the show, Hannibal screenshots that made me laugh (even though I had no context) were the reason I thought it might be fun to do my own. At first I didn’t really know what I was doing, as might be evident in some Teen Wolf recaps, but I soon found that giving each character a voice of their own helped tremendously. The format itself shaped the style more than anything else. Text on a limited space means verbosity is out of the window, unless you make the very deliberate effort to turn that into a joke–a wall of words can effectively communicate the fact that a character is monologuing or rambling. Screenshots are also great for pacing; there’s nothing like a text-free shot to give a joke time to land.

Between the screenshotting and the commentary, how long does it usually take to complete each episodic review? Is there a particular process you have with respect to making them?

It really depends on the length of the episode. I normally go through every single frame of a scene to find the best facial expressions (Conleth Hill–Varys in GoT–and Ed Harris–the Man in Black in Westworld–are prime examples of actors that spoil me for choice). This also helps me to notice details I might have otherwise missed. The time it takes to write an episode recap can vary, especially from show to show. Since I go frame to frame, the longer the episode, the more work I have. It usually takes between five and eight hours total. Writer’s block can happen, but I think it usually affects the quality of the writing (and my mood!) more than the length of time spent on a piece.

In some cases you’ve written an accompanying text post with your thoughts on an episode. When you begin the recaps, do you usually go in with a skeleton-structure of what you want to address in the episode, or do you do the full write-ups after you’ve finished the recap?

The write-ups always happen after I finish the recaps, while I’m waiting for the images to upload. I keep notes while watching the episode and always have a mental list of things I want to address, for the most part managing to get my point across as succinctly as possible without forgetting anything. The trouble with writing something at around (or past) midnight is that memory and editing become… interesting creatures.

The shows you’ve picked (Westworld, How to Get Away with Murder, Teen Wolf, Game of Thrones, etc.) cross an array of genres. How do you select which shows you want to review?

All those shows are high drama, with ridiculous plot twists, situations, and characters. They’re fun! Even Westworld, with its more cerebral approach, can become a parody of itself without particular effort on my part. Additionally, they’re shows that sometimes become controversial and deeply affect the fans watching. This means I can be critical at times and provide much needed levity during others. My Patreon supporters also have a say, but they still choose from shows I’m interested in doing. Westworld recaps could just have easily been Luke Cage recaps save for a few votes, so that’s an interesting road not taken. The most important thing is that I either love the show or love-hate it. If I find myself bored, disappointed, or just plain tired of its nonsense, I stop (and have done so for at least three shows off the top of my head). I do have to admit to liking my version of events so much I’m still watching Game of Thrones as part of some sort of weird and narcissistic exercise in writing.

Yes—you also mentioned earlier that you wanted to challenge yourself as a writer. What sort of writing do you do outside the Reviews?

I’ve written a few short fanfics and generally like to play with characters and ideas. I’m currently wrestling with an original fantasy novel and the recaps have been excellent training for letting myself abandon the pursuit of perfection in order to get something (anything!) down.

On the subject of Game of Thrones—you’ve done more GoT episode recaps than you have for any other TV show, and earlier you mentioned you either need to love or love-hate a show to proceed to review it. If you had to put GoT into one of these two categories…?

Game of Thrones is something I have a lot of thoughts and emotions about, especially as the show relates to the books. I will always love the show for introducing me to the world and to a lot of people who enjoy talking about it. I also kinda hate the show for the way it cheapens and distorts the source material. A Storm of Swords is my favorite A Song of Ice and Fire book and I started recapping the show during Season Four, extremely excited to witness the Lannisters tearing themselves apart. To say that I was disappointed by the way certain elements were adapted is putting it lightly, so the recaps became a way to deal with all my nerd rage… and Season Five was just bad! However, the recaps help me adapt the adaptation—and having enjoyed the sixth season, I think GoT has become a show I’ve accepted. Like the weather, good or bad. For the most part I just like talking about it. It also doesn’t hurt that people apparently like what I’m doing; getting feedback of any kind is wonderful and the response to the recaps has been overwhelming.

GoT gets a lot of flak for how it’s adapted George R.R. Martin’s ASoIaF series, as you mentioned. Book fans and show-only fans often end up at odds with one another—do you feel you enjoy the show more or less because you’ve read the books and have that awareness of the differences between them?

Ignorance is bliss, yet it’s pretty hard to remain engaged and ignorant on the internet, no matter how hard YouTube commenters strive to disprove this point. I think I’d probably enjoy the show a bit more if I hadn’t read the books, but given how loud book fans can get, I doubt I’d remain in the dark and would eventually be disappointed.

Some of your recaps touch on the fact that GoT has gradually moved away from ASoIaF, especially insofar as how certain characters and plotlines are represented (or, in some cases, are not represented). Do you think this differentiation is why many fans feel less enthusiastic about recent seasons (particularly, as you said, Season Five), or are there other causes for that fallout?

I know a lot of people, book readers and show watchers alike, who were extremely excited about Dorne. I think disappointment hit both sides hard. It’s probably one of the few things we can all agree on: the Dorne plotline was subpar and a waste of everyone’s time and talent (particularly that of Alexander Siddig, who played Doran Martell). And then there’s the whole mess with Stannis which was… poorly executed. I’ve also noticed that production values just aren’t what they used to be. Screenshots from Season One make later seasons look like they were filmed in a basement using post production color grading as lighting… and let’s not even mention the wigs. At the end of the day what hit the hardest for me personally was seeing a whole bunch of people who used to love the show abandon ship and write quite bitter, eloquently phrased articles about it. To say it didn’t help quell my own dissatisfaction is an understatement.

With respect to “adapting the adaptation”, what do you think is missing most from the show which is present in the books—and on the flipside, is there anything you’re glad the show has altered from the source material?

The books make an effort to show that war and revenge slowly strip away people’s humanity. While graphic at times, the writing doesn’t glorify violence and savagery, and contains beautifully written anti-war rhetoric. The show is not only missing this, but also refuses to give characters the complexity they have in the books, a sin I could forgive in a movie adaptation but not in a series of ten-hour seasons. As far as things that are better… the aging-up of some younger characters makes for more palatable watching. While certain actions can’t be excused of adults–resulting in characters who are rash or stupid rather than childishly immature or overwhelmed–it’s easier to see horrible things happen to people around 20, rather than to people under 16.

As you said, a great many fans of the show have jumped ship in the last few years. Meanwhile, some book fans are also voicing resentment, having grown increasingly impatient during the wait for the release of The Winds of Winter. This has created another point of contention within the fan community, with dissatisfied readers going head-to-head with those defending the speed of GRRM’s writing. Has this controversy impacted you or your reviews?

I’m not that impacted by the controversy. This is probably due to the fact that the parts of fandom I’m most involved in are comprised of writers who are almost unanimously defenders of his speed, even while joking about it. Essentially it’s a conflict happening far away and which my environment ensures I’m on the right side of, since I’m of the opinion that we don’t own GRRM’s time, no matter how much we love his work and how disappointed we are by the fact there’s not more of it (and I find it all kinds of hilarious that show watchers get to be smug about spoilers).

Back in May, Entertainment Weekly reported that HBO is considering four different Game of Thrones spinoffs. Given your feelings towards the show in its current state, what are your immediate thoughts on that?

Honestly, my immediate thought was “Ugh…” but having read the article, I can think of at least a couple of stories from GRRM’s canon I’d love to see adapted (the fall of Valyria in particular). Maybe by a completely different team of creators, though.

The Fall of Valyria would an interesting base for a spinoff. Most people initially predicted that they would cover Robert’s Rebellion, Dunk & Egg, or the Dance of the Dragons… all parts of the canon which GRRM has already written a great deal about. Choosing something he hasn’t elaborated on much would allow for more artistic liberties and would enable them to avoid some of the lost-in-translation issues GoT has faced. Would you like to see the Fall of Valyria because GRRM has kept it ambiguous in many ways, or is it just part of the canon you’re very interested in?

I love the stories surrounding the fall of empires. There’s just something about the grandiose tragedy of it all, especially when combined with a kind of sick, morbid delight at seeing something that epic falling to its knees. In all honesty, though, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that curiosity has a lot to do with it.

With Season Seven of GoT only a month away, some spoilers have already surfaced through set photos and leaks. Have you looked into these, or are you keeping away from them until the start of the season?

I don’t go hunting for spoilers, no. I like to go into new seasons knowing next to nothing, though I have inadvertently seen set photos and that wonderful paparazzi shot of Kit Harington in full armor with sunglasses on.

With Season Seven in mind, is there anything you’re particularly nervous or enthusiastic about with respect to the show’s direction?

Sansa’s characterization is always a worry. That’s the big one. What I’m most looking forward to is all the characters’ roads converging as we head into the final season.

Is there anything you’re planning or predicting with respect to the new season of GoT—or the other shows you review, for that matter?

I have more than a few theories about what will happen in GoT (e.g. Jaime killing Cersei which I’d love because of the Aerys parallel, or Jon and Dany hooking up which I’d hate because it’s boring). As far as actually using any of them in the recaps, well… we’ll see. The GoT subreddit has rather draconic rules concerning spoilers and I’d rather censor myself than deal with the appropriate spoiler tags. In the case of Westworld, on the other hand, I felt completely at ease jumping on a theory’s bandwagon before it was revealed to be canon.

As far as those predictions are concerned, I expect only time will tell–though in the meantime, the Chrys Reviews series will continue to offer hints! On that note, do you think your close analysis of shows–even shows which can at times be so frustrating–honed your artistic instincts? Has making all these recaps left you with any lessons on writing and creativity at large?

Pointing out other people’s mistakes should help one avoid making them, right? I would hope that’s true, but we all have our particular quirks. I’m still someone who edits as she writes, doubting word choice and structure to distraction, yet the fact that I had to have something delivered every Monday has helped me to learn to just let go. It’s been good. Typos are still annoying, but they’re not the end of the world and I’ve made enough to know. What else… setting limitations for yourself is great. I’ve tried to avoid obvious and lazy jokes or references and the result is almost always better than what I might have originally written. Comedians who complain about PC culture really annoy me in this regard, because if we remove the whole hurting people aspect of their comedy they’re really just demanding the right to rest on the same lazy old tropes… deciding to not use the word “bitch” was hard, particularly because I swear a lot and Jesse Pinkman made it goddamn hilarious. But: the format is great for learning to create characters and flowing dialogue. I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve.


Chrys’ reviews and other projects are accessible through her website and her Patreon; she is also on Tumblr and Twitter.

Workshop: The Last Kingdom, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They began watching BBC’s historical drama series, The Last Kingdom, in early 2017; after completing its first season, the two sat down to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of The Last Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

Workshop: The Last Kingdom, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

 

C: Before we begin there is something we should make clear. The Last Kingdom is based off of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series, and shares its name with the first book in that saga. Neither of us have read that series, which is quite out of the ordinary for us; I think we’re used to considering these sorts of shows chiefly as adaptations–from history, from literature, and sometimes from both–but that isn’t true in this case. Not having read Cornwell’s source material, we cannot comment on how accurate or inaccurate an adaptation this series is. If you are reading this and are familiar with the books, you can enjoy any dramatic irony we may incur.

A: Yes; we’ve chosen to look at this TV series not as a good or bad reflection of the books, but as a TV series. We’ll also try to avoid making too many comparisons between The Last Kingdom and Vikings, the last show we workshopped.

C: Although admittedly there are obvious parallels between them regarding setting and what they’re attempting to portray and achieve.

A: Right. But with respect to this review, we’re not going to–at least, we’re going to try not to–continually use this as more space in which to criticize Vikings. With that said: whereas our last workshop mainly picked out the things wrong with that show, this workshop will largely focus on positives–the “hey, these are the ways it can actually work” moments.

C: A good starting point is the minor characters. One of the things that makes TLK continually entertaining is just how the minor characters are fleshed out. Across the board, with respect to both acting and writing, I’m still fascinated by how well they’ve done characterization in this show. The characters fluctuate between good and bad decisions, they develop, they…

A: I think, not to interrupt, but: “minor characters” covers a whole array.

C: That’s true.

A: For those less familiar with the show, there’s one major character, Uhtred, and then there’s a whole bevvy of second-tier characters, for lack of a better term: Alfred, Brida, Leofric, Beocca–characters who are consistently important and involved with Uhtred’s journey. Then there’s the third-tier characters who are named and get dialogue and agency; Guthrum is one, Prince Æthelwald’s another. And all of these characters, regardless of tiering, are given weight in the narrative.

C: Even truly minor characters–unnamed sergeants and huntsmen–are given a lot of personality and attention.

A: Yeah, I cared too much about everyone. I am very much traumatized by all the death. But looking at this from a workshopping perspective, it’s great that both the writing and also the filming of the show–frames with just minor characters in them, lingering shots, and so on–give so much attention to all the characters. It makes watching it a much more engaging experience.

C: True. Too often a lot of shows do a handful of main characters and then have underdeveloped background characters as set-dressing, and it’s just less interesting. There are so many shows–not just Vikings–which aim for a aesthetics and atmospheres like TLK’s, but lack this crucial feature. I think this is my biggest takeaway from TLK, and I’d argue is TLK’s greatest asset: this show treats all of its characters like human beings, not like set-pieces. Probably the most obvious example is Hild.

A: To summarize her arrival about two-thirds into the season, there’s a scene where an unnamed nun is being sexually assaulted in the wake of a battle. The sexual assault is stopped by a group of established characters as they leave the battleground.

C: Scenes depicting sexual violence have become a staple for many shows in the fantasy and historical fiction watershed. Game of Thrones has developed a terrible habit of including sexual violence as a plot device at the drop of a hat; often shows use it to point out how heroic the victims’ rescuers are–so when that occurred in TLK, we weren’t particularly surprised. But then–and I can’t stress how unusual this felt–rather than having that unnamed nun disappear into the background, she accompanies the main characters as they leave, and continues to be a character in later episodes as well. Hild remains relevant; she possess her own agency; she takes part in conversations and significant moments for the rest of the season. She’s given a fully-fledged personality.

A: And she has a pre-existing story which is brought in. That’s also worth emphasizing: often it can feel like characters who appear midway through a show have had no life prior to the main character finding them, but that’s not the case with Hild, as we learn through conversations she has in later episodes. Everyone feels so real.

C: Hild was not included solely to make Uhtred appear heroic or to provide a fight scene. The way the show handles her character is representative of the way it portrays the entire cast. It’s refreshing to watch a show which avoids so many typical tropes.

A: If we were to just describe certain characters from TLK, they would sound like tropes–but they take those traits and make them into a fully realized person. Brida’s a good example–she could easily have been a love interest who becomes the scorned woman, but instead she gets to be a proper character with emotional range and an understandable set of motivations behind her decision making. And you understand how she’s fitting into this society as a woman without it being horribly trope-y or contrived.

C: Characters of all sorts–Brida, Leofric, and Ælswith, among others–shift from episode to episode; they make choices that feel true to their characterization and own motives, rather than always acting helpfully or detrimentally towards the protagonist.

A: You once described it as “the same personality from different perspectives.”

C: Yeah.

A: That’s easiest to see in pious characters like Alfred and Beocca; at times we’re very happy that their codes of conduct are beneficial for Uthred’s fortunes, and at other times we are frustrated by their rigidity and implacability. This depth and complexity of characters is impressive.

C: Definitely. This show takes the time to show that depth. I don’t feel that TLK’s world–as in, the actual environment in which these characters exist–is necessarily more developed than other shows of its ilk. From a set and tech perspective, a lot of the shows we’ve mentioned have really impressive budgets and do a good job of conjuring up the appearance of medieval/pre-medieval life. In appearance, TLK isn’t better than them–but its writing is in a totally different league. The characters feel realer against the time-specific backdrop. And when–given that we just watched the season finale, we were bound to talk about this–when characters die, it never feels contrived, regardless of the circumstances. Deaths contribute to the story as a whole while still feeling abrupt and realistic and upsetting. It doesn’t feel like characters are being killed off for shock value–a growing stigma with shows of this type. When people die in TLK, the show focuses on the right things, chiefly how other characters react. It’s not intended purely to catch the audience off-guard. In the finale a character died in a major battle seen as a result of, you know, being in a battle, which makes the battle actually feel dangerous. The battle has weight.

A: That death also happens quite close to the start of the battle and the battle continues. When the character dies the world keeps moving without them, which adds to the atmosphere of danger and realism.

C: Also, there’s no overwhelming feeling of plot armor in TLK. Compare that to Vikings where the main characters were invincible tanks who murdered everybody in every single battle and didn’t look the least bit ruffled afterward–those battles weren’t stressful or worrying because there was no feeling of consequence. There was no weight to the human bodies being tossed around and eventually we stopped caring. There needs to be emotional weight and meaning behind the fighting–another thing TLK got right. Viewers care more about fights if you give them reasons to be interested–I know that sounds basic, but it really is overlooked in some cases.

A: TLK’s battles always feel justified and they all feel distinct. Not only are they staged differently but they conjure up different concerns and feelings for viewers–sometimes Uhtred seems to be on the wrong side, sometimes he’s in single combat… And, even with our knowledge of history, they didn’t feel like foregone conclusions. They were stressful to watch!

C: Speaking of our historical knowledge, we should address the historical accuracy stuff–

A: Yes. The thing we’d both heard before watching this show was, “Oh my god, the Anglo-Saxons use square shields–the fools! The fools!” which, well, [laughs] I think we disagree on this point a little–I feel that minor historical accuracies are fine…

C: Fair enough. [laughs] I didn’t realize I was a zealot about accuracy until this moment, but fair enough.

A: …As long as those inaccuracies are justified. To use the shields as an example: having one side in battles use square shields while the other side uses round shields makes the different armies easier to identify. And if that’s the least accurate part of the show, than the show is doing a lot right.

C: That’s true. TLK has worked hard to keep the majority of its inaccuracies tied to the show’s aesthetic rather than its writing. Better to have a realistic script and a few contrived looking sets and costumes than a hyper-realistic set and awful writing.

A: Broadly–and I think this is probably true for all aspects of writing–if it serves a purpose and is the best way of achieving that purpose, then it’s okay.

C: I agree–and clarity is particularly important given how much content is crammed into TLK; a ton of things happen in this show. There is so much content. Ignoring all the politics between Wessex and the Vikings for the moment, Uhtred himself is all over the place on a real rollercoaster of a narrative. The sheer amount that happens is both a strength and weakness.

A: This season aired first on the BBC, meaning a sixty minute show is more or less sixty minutes, not forty-five. Those extra fifteen minutes gives them time to pack more in. The number of narratives and developments depicted over the eight episodes is certainly impressive, particularly when a character can appear one episode, undergo an entire character arc in the following episode, and die in the next. That can be…a bit much, at times.

C: There’s one episode in the middle of the season which is predominantly set in Cornwall; it introduces so many new characters and plotlines–a number of which are respectively killed or resolved later in the same episode–that it feels almost like a film in of itself. While I think we both love that level of immersion, it does at times feel a bit too much.

A: Not to mention the array of Anglo-Saxon names can be tough to remember, spell, and pronounce.

C: Because there are so many characters, how much time you spend on each one is a difficult distribution to get right. Some names are said once or twice–and yes, those names are hard to pick up–and if you don’t get the name then and there, you’ll be referring to that character as “second priest guy” or “sister two” or “horse man” for three or four episodes before you hear their name again. That’s not the end of the world but it evidences that there’s a lot to juggle, for the writers and the viewers alike.

A: I think the fact that we watched this show one or two episodes at a time is probably good; this isn’t a show I’d like to binge watch. So much happens in a single episode, if you watched more than two of these in a row, I think you’d come away with a headache.

C: Though again, the fact that this show gives you a lot to process and ruminate on could be seen as a strength. Part of the show’s appeal is how many interconnected plots are going on and how much is happening.

A: There’s a fine line. One doesn’t want to have too few characters doing too much or vice versa. TLK mainly walks that line well, but it does dip over at times.

C: With that said, it’s so exciting to have a show which trusts its audience enough to give them this much depth, content, and characterization. Sometimes it can be a bit much, but given that this is so rarely a problem for shows, I’d be loath to suggest they change that. Far better that they keep giving us slightly too much than too little.

A: That’s true, although one area that I might potentially “de-complicate”, is Uhtred’s character arc. This could be an area where not having read the books is a big problem; my suspicion is, in the books, arcs happen over a longer and more drawn out timeline, so there’s more time to see different stages of Uhtred’s life. By truncating the time, his motivations shift a lot–sometimes he’s set on getting back his ancestral home, sometimes he’s focused on revenge; he doesn’t actually get very far with planning how to achieve either.

C: Uhtred’s foster-sister Thyra appears to be, quite literally, abandoned for most of the season. We only realized in the season finale that Uhtred thought she was dead; until then we’d believed he knew she was alive and had effectively given her up as lost. That obviously changes the feel of that entire arc, given that Uhtred and his foster sibling are constantly ruminating on how to revenge themselves on their father’s killers.

A: That whole arc is awkward in many ways because every time it comes up, we wonder why the siblings are taking so long. Uhtred spends much of the season in Wessex, which is admittedly a distance from where he grew up, but not so far that it would be unreasonable for him to return there with soldiers. He is, after all, able to get men to follow him out of Wessex into Cornwall for the promise of silver, so why he never goes north is odd. His foster brother Ragnar makes this stranger still, given that he frequently travels between Ireland and Wessex, largely to see Uhtred about said revenge. Every time this theme comes up it is a bit annoying given that some of the reasoning behind it remains unspecified for so long. I can see that the show was aiming for “dramatic irony”–the audience knowing about Thyra while Uhtred doesn’t–but it really backfires here. It might have been better, if we were changing something, to either make it clearer that he believes her dead, or alternatively have the audience also think she’s dead until that dramatic reveal in the final episode.

C: TLK takes time to develop all its elements, but given that it’s setting itself up as a saga, the backstory isn’t always the prescient part of the narrative. The north becomes largely irrelevant after the second episode, as do all the antagonists associated with that region.

A: As a side note, that is very saga-ish; in the opening of Njal’s Saga the length of someone’s hair is described, then is never mentioned again until it becomes super-relevant about eighty chapters later during her husband’s death scene, when her hair could have been used to restring his bow. And talking about Thyra, we should discuss the tropes surrounding women in shows like TLK.

C: Tropes which, yeah, definitely do still haunt this genre.

A: With both Brida and Mildrith, Uhtred’s wife, we’re given two interesting female characters with distinct personalities disconnected from their looks. It’s easier to see with Brida at first glance. Both Vikings and Game of Thrones–again using the easiest examples–present these “sexy warrior women” who don’t actually feel like real people. TLK manages better, though it’s not precisely clear how they’ve avoided that stereotype. Because admittedly she’s very pretty, and she does have a relationship with the main character–

C: And she’s a warrior.

A: And she’s a warrior. But, she has a lot of depth and we see many different aspects of her life as her own story develops. She’s presented as a scorned woman in some moments but she is also a cool-ass warrior, and it never feels annoyingly contrived.

C: It doesn’t feel as though TLK is trying to prove anything. The show isn’t trying to win points by presenting characters like Brida; it feels like they set out to create real and interesting characters, both men and women. That’s admirable, particularly given this genre is bogged down by so much fetishizing and incoherency when it comes to women.

A: The non-combative are also well portrayed. Mildrith is a capable woman who doesn’t kill people; it’s equally rare to have a strong woman who isn’t wielding political power or an axe but who still manages to be–oh, and we haven’t mentioned this at all thus far: this show is really funny.

C: Yeah.

A: The intention is never to be farcical; lines are just likeably witty much of the time.

C: Another achievement for the writing team.

A: Yeah. And the humor is spread around–there are characters who are written to have better senses of humor, but they’re not just comic relief. To return to Mildrith, she is someone who has principles, sticks to them, develops, and avoids the trope of “pious wife”; she holds her own, she’s determined, and she’s also often quite funny. You don’t feel cheated by the decisions she makes towards the end of the season, when she chooses her own path.

C: Like many characters, Mildrith is shown taking time to reflect on what’s happening to her, and she then acts on those stimuli. Which is what, you know, humans do–and they don’t only do that when they’re in the presence of the main character.

A: Shout out to both the writers and the actors for very strong performances. Even characters we haven’t mentioned yet, like Iseult, prove to be far more interesting than the tropes we initially suspected they might be. So full credit for all the women on this show, pretty much without exception.

C: TLK manages far more effective and more diverse representation of women than many similar shows–

A: While being the least boastful, as you said.

C: If it isn’t already clear, we should mention that we like this show a lot. [laughs] For my own part I’d strongly and unequivocally recommend TLK; what we’ve seen thus far has been very good. One more point: one of the first things you encounter when watching this show is its opening credits, which, I mean, maybe this is just something we’re particularly attentive toward, but…the opening credits.

A: I love them.

C: [laughs]

A: [laughs] They’re very pretty! I’d equate them with the Game of Thrones credits in that they’re very elegant and also serve an immediate purpose. TLK’s opening credits are done to look like woodcuts of different characters and places, accompanied by simple but dynamic music; the Viking invasions are represented by the map of England being burned away. We both came to this show with a good amount of knowledge–we both knew, for instance, that the last kingdom would be Wessex–but for those who don’t come to the show with that knowledge, this is a good way of showing what’s happening. And as I said it’s very pretty. It’s a great representation of the show in that it’s clearly made with love and care and effort, all while remaining informative.

C: Yeah. That’s a very effective summation.

[pause]

C: I’m sorry to do this.

A: [laughs]

C: It’ll be the last time. To hell with it. Okay: we watched a season and a half of Vikings before giving up on it, so we’re pretty familiar with its opening sequence. I have seen that opening sequence with burning boats on the open sea–

A: With the main characters drowning–

C: With the main characters drowning! By the end of our time watching that show I was looking forward to that scene becoming a reality. I suppose they went with that opening because they thought it was cool, but it represents absolutely nothing of the show other than unfulfilled promises. Meanwhile you have TLK over here with nonstop highlights right out of the gate. It’s pretty, it’s cohesive, it’s expansive, it gives a damn, it’s…

A: [laughs]

C: Sorry, I got worked up there, but it’s good. Go watch The Last Kingdom; it’s–it’s good.

A: I’d also add that TLK’s opening helps remind viewers of the backstory and the stakes it initially presents, even when the show is focused on other narrative threads in the short term. It establishes the setting eloquently and is emblematic of the series as a whole.

C: The Last Kingdom’s plot can occasionally move quickly and there are some minor historical inaccuracies, but the reason these aspects are frustrating is because of how likable the show is, and how immersive it can be. Yes the story moves a mile a minute, but it does that to consistently deliver depth and development at a level I haven’t seen in any similar series.

A: Those minor things that we would change–and there are very few of them–are outweighed by its many assets, which include exemplary women characters, its respect for its audience’s intelligence, and its historical detail. There’s so much right with The Last Kingdom that it feels better to focus on those strengths.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of Vikings can be found here.

Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Season One by Angela Clem

Angela Clem earned her MSc by Research in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016, and her BA in History from Macalester College in 2015. Currently based in Overland Park, Kansas, she works in Financial Aid at Johnson County Community College and is also Social Media Coordinator and Online Editor for The Ogilvie.

This review contains spoilers for Season One of the Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as vague spoilers for the original book series of the same name. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


 

Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Season One

 

I’ve been a die-hard fan of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASoUE) since I first read them when I was ten years old. Upon every re-read, I’m drawn in by his morosely humorous narration of the tale of the Baudelaire siblings, three unlucky children who are consistently undervalued, misunderstood, and often mistreated by the adults around them. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of ASoUE is Handler’s wrecking-ball destruction of the fourth wall by writing under the pen name Lemony Snicket and then including Snicket as a character in the series. Ultimately, though, my favorite thing about these books is how they calmly step off the beaten path of children’s fiction: the world is not entirely a good place, people don’t always do the right thing, and intelligence and kindness aren’t necessarily rewarded with fortune and happiness. Over the course of the series, Handler slowly reveals a much more realistic (and according to some, postmodern) world than that which is so often portrayed in books written for children.

In their Netflix adaptation of the first four books, developers Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld manage to uphold Handler’s grim tone, while making a few necessary changes to translate the books into a TV series that is both amusing and clever. The show’s very prominent inclusion of the narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) preserves the source material’s literary nature, as does the fact that each book spans two episodes. A two-episode arc occasionally sacrifices a steady pace for languorous exploration of Handler’s universe, but this is a much more preferable problem than that of the 2004 film adaptation, which crammed three books into 107 minutes. By allowing an ample length of time for each story arc to unfold, Hudis and Sonnenfeld cede the floor to Handler’s idiosyncratic style, which is best enjoyed holistically rather than selectively.

Take Episode One: following Snicket’s touching dedication to a mysterious woman named Beatrice, the first scene takes a claustrophobic, conspiratorial and clever tone as Snicket–illuminated by a dim row of wall sconces and a solitary match–warns viewers against watching this “dreadful, melancholy, and calamitous–a word which here means ‘both dreadful and melancholy’–” show. This echoes the various moments in the books at which Handler advises, “…if you wish to avoid an unpleasant story you had best put this book down.” For me, this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the ASoUE books, and I was delighted to see it echoed in the Netflix adaptation. It’s worth noting that Snicket’s warning (along with many other lines from this episode) are quoted almost directly from the original text. While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage copying dialogue from the page to the screen ad verbatim, it works surprisingly well here due to the fact that Hudis and Sonnenfeld have allowed Handler’s books to drive their show. It’s a pity, therefore, that later episodes don’t follow suit; I found Episode One to be the strongest because it perfectly showcases Handler’s playful approach to postmodern narrative for a young adult audience, as reflected in Warburton’s deadpan yet lyrical delivery.

The show’s visual appearance is extremely reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. This is no surprise, seeing as how ASoUE production designer Bo Welch lent his talents to both. After Snicket’s initial monologue in the underground tunnel, the camera tilts up through a cross-section of the pavement to follow a wholesome, brightly colored street trolley as it rattles down a tree-lined avenue. Such shots bring to mind the quaint model sets of Thomas & Friends and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood… complete with shiny red fire engine. Conversely, at significant turning points in the Baudelaires’ lives, Welch depicts the children (dressed in pastel or bright colors) as completely isolated amongst a sea of neutral greys and faded browns. Welch’s style is at once wondrously childlike and darkly sardonic—a difficult but necessary balance to strike, as Handler’s books are intended for a young audience, but also deal with themes such as loss, grief, and abuse.

Younger viewers are likely to enjoy Welch’s almost cartoonish style, along with the mischievous main title theme and the precocious young protagonists. Older viewers will appreciate several familiar faces among the cast including Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), Sir (Don Johnson), and Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), as well as Warbuton’s Snicket . By nature of the plot, Harris is the most likely to dominate the show, but he doesn’t. He brings his extensive musical theatre experience to the role, providing the lead vocals for both the main title theme and for a comically operatic, off-kilter song introducing Olaf and his theatre troupe in Episode One. For the season-ending song, however, his vocals blend with those of Warburton, K. Todd Freeman as the hapless banker Mr. Poe, and the three Baudelaire children. Thankfully, the actors who play Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith, respectively) hold their own, both in the season’s finale theme and among such a strong cast–a generally uncommon occurrence in screen adaptations of children’s books. Weissman’s and Hynes’ deliveries are occasionally stilted which contradicts their characterization as exceedingly bright children, but the flip side is that one must only look back to the books to see Handler employ equally repressed, buttoned-up, Victorian-style language.

Those among you who have read the books might be frustrated with the liberties taken by Hudis and Sonnenfeld regarding plot pacing. Certain Very Furtive Developments in the plot not introduced until the fifth book are dramatically telescoped for the purpose of enticing a television audience. Klaus’ discovery of the small spyglass in the ashes of his home, for example, kick-starts the darker, more mature plot of V.F.D. and its hidden influences on the children’s lives. This is mirrored through a fantastic minor plot following a mother and father (Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett) in their attempt to return to their children.

Season One ends on a note of resignation–literally–with a delightfully morose tune that drives the season home to its conclusion. Obviously, this was not part of Handler’s books (although I like to think that he would have employed musical numbers if it could have been done). The song’s lyrics echo what Snicket has been urging us from Scene One: that the tale of the Baudelaire orphans is exceedingly miserable. We as viewers have been trained to crave a reliable sinewave of positive and negative occurrences in the narratives we consume, but sometimes “…that’s not how the story goes.”

We leave the Baudelaires at a grim, graveyard-esque boarding school where they will presumably experience even more unfortunate events. However, with the tantalizing promise of this continued misery, Hudis and Sonnenfeld—thanks to their successful translation of Handler’s playfully postmodern style—have us on the edge of our seats, a phrase which here means, “eagerly awaiting Season Two.”


Angela can be reached via email and Twitter.

Review: Trainspotting 2 by Gina Maya

Gina Maya is a Welsh writer and trans activist, currently studying for her PhD in Transgender Narratives in Popular Culture at Edinburgh University. As well as being a nostalgist for 1980s American football, she loves movies and writes about her experiences in Edinburgh’s cinemas.

This review contains spoilers for Trainspotting 2. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


 

Trainspotting 2 (T2) at the Cameo Cinema

 

The screening rooms for T2 continue to be full in Edinburgh. Is it the shots of the city that make this more than just a film, as if we’re almost in the story? The protagonists on Arthur’s Seat, reflecting on life the way we do; the bar fight in a run-down pub, a reminder of another side to this gentrified student city that many of us never see. This feeling of familiarity might be the closest some of us ever come to being in a movie, and if this sounds melancholic, it’s a perfect place to talk about the film.

T2 is a story about men. Jaded, frustrated and just a little anxious with a fifth decade of life looming without achievement, fame or money, or even a settled family life or career. I did think about Fight Club (1999), and the men who make up the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. Here, though, in T2, we have a poignant potential for friendship and hope to accompany the threat of violence that wafts through the film from time to time.

We also have betrayal, the one that ended the original Trainspotting in 1996. It lies at the heart of the sequel as Ewan McGregor’s Renton returns from the Netherlands, twenty years on from his theft of his friends’ drug money, to confront the past, and with it three former friends nursing grievances to different degrees. Logically, they should hate him, and predictably, the psycho of the group, Begbie, summons rage that can only be sated by Renton’s brutal death. That, then, is the main plot, but T2 is about much more than the obvious cause-and-effect. In fact this is a film in which three of the four forty-something men face up to the emptiness of their lives, and the friendships that might give them salvation.

Ultimately, then, the extremities of that first Trainspotting, with its drug- and alcohol-fuelled surrealism and violence, is replaced by pastel shades. If the 1996 movie features the dehumanizing of a gang of men via different substances, T2 is the gradual reversion to humanity. Even the obnoxious Begbie has his moment towards the end, a brief understanding of his flawed masculinity. Of the others, the character Spud enjoys some of the film’s tenderest scenes. We get glimpses of his sensitive, perceptive nature, the driving force behind a desire to commit suicide early on, in awareness of the shame he causes his wife and son. We get his rescue at the crucial point by Renton, back from Amsterdam. Spud, of course, forgives him as is his nature. The other, more complex friendship concerns Renton and his one-time best-friend ‘Sick Boy’ Simon. The film dabs our screens with childhood photos of Renton and Sick Boy in their football tops, with the world at their feet. The film returns us there, full-circle, to the denouement.

For all the references to the past, though, T2 is not sentimental; beyond Begbie’s violence, more comedic than horrific in this sequel, I found this a moving and even uplifting depiction of middle-age men who manage to confront their underwhelming lives and find their own personal redemption.


You can follow Gina’s reviews, as well as her weekly diary posts on her transitioning, at her website: www.ginamaya.co.uk.

Workshop: Vikings, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They began watching History Channel’s hit series Vikings in late 2016 after hearing many recommendations for the show. After completing the show’s first season, both sat down to discuss it and consider its strengths and weaknesses.

This discussion contains spoilers for Vikings’ first season. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


 

Workshop: Vikings, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

 

C: First and foremost, we should explain what we’re doing here in this piece. We both studied Creative Writing at university, and one aspect of our course that I think we both enjoyed was workshopping pieces by our fellow writers—and in turn having our own pieces workshopped.

A: Though I now find that I reflexively analyse everything I read, imagining what suggestions I’d have made if it had been brought to workshop.

C: Exactly. So that’s what we’re going to do here with Vikings. This will be in part a review, in part a discussion, and in part the things we’d change if we had the opportunity to workshop Vikings’ script.

A: The many, many things we’d change.

C: [laughs] Yeah, I also feel we ought to mention that neither of us are… big fans of the show. With that said, we’re going to be as fair as possible, and we’re going to make any criticisms that we have as constructive as possible. The basic rule of a good workshop, I think, is to stick with the main premise of the piece but to consider ways to improve it within that framework. Also, because we’re writers, we will be focusing on the narrative rather than any other aspect of the show.

A: So we won’t be looking at set or costume or tech, which is a shame since I quite liked those bits.

C: That’s true—there are a lot of positive visual and stylistic elements, which we may not necessarily focus on too closely here, so sorry if we seem all doom and gloom—it’s just that it’s a shame to see something like Vikings, which has so much potential and promise from its outset, not follow through on so much of the good stuff it sets up.

A: It’s true; thinking back to that first episode, the opening scene is pretty good.

C: To summarise those first few minutes, Vikings opens with the words ‘Eastern Baltic 793 A.D.’; then there’s a fight between a character whom we later learn is Ragnar Lothbrok, the protagonist, and some stock enemies. Ragnar wins, and he and his brother, Rollo, embrace—

A: You forgot that first Ragnar kills another random “enemy” who is running away.

C: [laughs] Yeah—and then there’s a moment when Ragnar apparently sees Odin and several Valkyries. Then we get the opening credits and the main story begins, which is all about Ragnar now travelling west to England. But—to stay with that opening scene for the moment—what did we think of it? It’s pretty engaging, right?

A: …Sure. I mean, it’s not unengaging. But I think looking at it within the context of the rest of the show, we see a lot of the ways in which Vikings is flawed and fails to deliver. We never find out any more about this specific situation, but the Vikings have clearly travelled to the East Baltic to raid. That means that they’re unequivocally the bad guys in this scene, and then it’s made worse by the fact that Ragnar kills a terrified, fleeing man, having apparently already murdered all of his friends. I don’t understand who I’m meant to be rooting for right now. Is it really Ragnar, the murderer who is covered in the blood of helpless Slavic peasants?

C: This is definitely an issue. Some of TV’s big success stories in the last few years—Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, that sort of thing—do revolve around nuanced, flawed protagonists; these shows prove that audiences are prepared to watch morally questionable characters, but they also need to see, firstly, their conflict, and secondly, reasons why they are the way they are. As far as the viewer can tell, Ragnar just isn’t bothered about being a terrible person—even by the standards of the time.

A: But his brother Rollo is worse! I mean, I think we’re meant to feel sympathy for him because he lives in Ragnar’s shadow constantly and also has a thing for Lagertha, Ragnar’s wife, but in one of the early episodes, he rapes someone.

C: Which never comes up again, by the way. And the Lagertha-Rollo storyline also falls by the wayside almost as soon as it’s been introduced… but yeah, I agree, despite the set-up suggesting that Rollo should be conflicted, he’s mainly just—I don’t know, sulky? It’s really frustrating because the dynamic between the brothers ought to be interesting. You have to actively try and mess it up to make it mundane—yet Vikings manages to do just that.

A: And, in order to counter the fact that the protagonists are uncharismatic thugs, the antagonists of the show have to be even worse. They’re like pantomime villains.

C: [laughs] Like Aella?

A: Do you mean King Aella of Northumbria, the king who always wears a crown lest the audience forget who he is? Also he—and all the English really—are painfully stupid.

C: Yeah—all the battles which occur in the show are incredibly one-sided. And by making the Viking characters—be they major or minor—effectively invulnerable in battle, the show completely diminishes the tension in fight scenes.

A: Completely. It would up the stakes if a few Vikings did actually die in battle, and not just at plot-specific moments. But back to our original point: I think that one of the first things we’d change if this was brought to one of our workshops is the depth—or lack thereof—of the main characters, especially Ragnar, but also Rollo and Lagertha.

C: We haven’t really discussed Lagertha—and I’m aware that we have a lot of other points to make, so we don’t really have time to analyse her fully—but, to give credit where it’s due, her character does have some sort of development. Early on, she’s presented as this tough, badass shield-maiden, but in later episodes she spends most of her time fretting over whether or not she’ll bear Ragnar enough sons. Neither of these depictions are inherently bad—though they’re certainly a little superficial—but the transition between them can barely be called a transition; there’s no progression at all… Lagertha just sort of switches personalities mid-season. The show could have created a really compelling plot where Lagertha struggles against the gendered pressures of a feudal and tribal society, but instead she’s just one archetype or the other.

A: Exactly. If I were to make a change to her character, it wouldn’t be to get rid of either aspect of her personality but, as you say, to have them come into conflict much more. And I’d make Rollo’s goals and desires more nuanced, but also more clear. What does he want—is it power? Is it love? Is it just to be better than his brother? And then to watch him get more involved in the political situation as he tries to achieve these aims.

C: While Ragnar could have far more conflict about the morality of his actions. In the opening scene, he has a vision of Odin and we understand that his culture is about glory and dying on the battlefield, while later in the show he meets Christians who have an entirely different faith and outlook on the world. It would be interesting to see him have an internal struggle as he tries to balance his desire to create a powerful legacy for his sons with the realization that there isn’t glory in killing people who don’t fight back. Whereas in the show he kind of just sits back and lets his men murder a lot of monks—he doesn’t get too involved and doesn’t seem to emote about it at all, really.

A: Speaking about Odin, that’s another interesting aspect of the opening scene which the show doesn’t follow up on. Ragnar sees the All-Father—looking eerily similar to Terry Pratchett, for some reason—and although he does reappear once or twice in the next couple of episodes, his appearance never has any impact! Why have Odin at the start if you’re not going to use him again?

C: The opening is a very dramatic and spiritual scene. If the show worked to incorporate this representation of Ragnar’s religion throughout, it’d be a strength, not a problem.

A: Moreover, in the sagas, Odin’s advice is always slightly dodgy, and normally comes with a high price, so it would be interesting to see that on the screen.

C: Exactly. But instead, the way in which Vikings portrays the relationship between characters and their faith completely changes after the first three-or-so episodes. And a lot of characters fluctuate between absolute cynicism and devout belief without really spending much time between those two extremes.

A: We’re left continually in doubt as to whether many of the characters actually believe in the gods, despite seeing some of said gods. Lagertha goes to Uppsala and makes pleading sacrifices, but also invents falsehoods about the gods at other times. She doesn’t really seem to mind annoying them, except when she does.

C: So our second workshop suggestion would be to actually develop some of the things which make the Vikings so fascinating as a historical group—religion being a big example. Vikings’ narrative introduces the gods from the get-go, and that’s the most difficult part—having established Odin as a character, we just need to continue feeling his presence and influence throughout the show.

A: That mention of the Vikings as a historical group really nicely segues into another point that I wanted to make. Now I realise that I am overly-particular about accuracy—

C: We should take a moment to acknowledge that you are incredibly knowledgeable about Vikings’ source material. If I’m not mistaken, your undergrad degree at UCL was in Viking Studies.

A: Indeed—I have four whole years proving that I can be snobbish about this show.

C: [laughs]

A: And also, this show aired on the History Channel, so I feel like it should make time to be accurate. I’m willing to sacrifice some historical facts for a the sake of plot and audience interest—a good point made by M. Dobson in his take on the show—but some of the inaccuracies feel quite sloppy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the attack on Lindisfarne takes place in January 793. Even if, as lots of historians think, that’s a misprint for June, we’re still saying that Ragnar and company are fighting in the Baltic earlier that year—and there’s no frost and everything’s green, so it’s not that early in the year—then get back to whichever part of Scandinavia they’re from, talk to Floki the shipbuilder, get an anchor and stuff made, then set sail. Couldn’t they have just made it 792 in the opening?

C: Suffice to say we’d like a bit more research done.

A: But really, my main point before I got side-tracked was about the internal inconsistencies in the show.

C: This is something which we’ve both commented on quite a lot. In the beginning, nobody believes that there’s land to the west, but Ragnar has heard a rumour and is determined to go—

A: And happily the Vikings strike lucky on their first voyage, turn up at Holy Island and go: “oh my goodness, there’s some people here, let’s kill them. Also: treasure.”

C: The sheer amount of luck the main cast enjoys gets pretty annoying.

A: But to return to the Vikings’ apparent lack of knowledge about England—from an historical perspective, it’s nonsense, but also within the show itself it’s proved idiotic almost immediately. Firstly Aethelstan, the priest the Vikings bring back from Lindisfarne, can speak Old Norse because, as he tells them, he has travelled around Scandinavia. So at least some Scandinavians know about England. And secondly, Haraldson—Ragnar’s boss, who we’ll touch on shortly—later mentions that he knew that the rumours were true and that England existed, he just didn’t want to share that knowledge with Ragnar—

C: And how did Haraldson find out about England when none of the people around him knew? This inconsistency is really annoying. And there are a lot of other examples we could bring up here, like how well the Northumbrians and Scandinavians can understand each other.

A: Right. Regardless of the fact that Old English and Old Norse were similar enough that in reality they could probably have communicated with each other just fine, the show is weird about who can understand whom when. If it’s important to the plot, only Ragnar can speak to the Northumbrians, but at other times all his men can understand them.

C: One of the most frustrating things about these inconsistencies is that—like so many of the show’s problems—they wouldn’t be all that difficult to get rid of, if just a little bit of time was taken.

A: Okay, I have one final major complaint about the show that I’d like to workshop. We mentioned Jarl Haraldson just now.

C: [laughs] Don’t you mean…Earl Haraldson?

A: [sighs] Why do they change out the original Norse titles—earl comes from jarl; they could’ve kept it. And why is he called Haraldson? That’s not how Old Norse names work—it’s effectively a surname. It’d be like calling Ragnar “Lothbrok” all the time. If they called them these names consistently, then sure—but why is it that one character is only given a patronym? His father isn’t even mentioned, so it’s not for a plot-specific reason. It makes no sense. No sense!

C: Point taken. What did you want to say about the jarl?

A: So this is a bit long-winded, but we open with that scene in the East Baltic with everyone dead apart from Ragnar and Rollo. And we also find out later on that the jarl’s sons, in an entirely separate and never fully-explained event, were randomly murdered, which is sad but… weirdly irrelevant. Well, I’d like to tie those two events together.

C: Yes! The “Haraldson’s murdered sons” subplot is brought up—pretty close to the end of his, uh, time in the show, too—in a very major, significant way… but never at any point afterward is it addressed, mentioned, resolved, anything. It would be great if that story led somewhere or felt relevant beyond just… poorly justifying Haraldson’s cruel rulership.

A: I feel like throughout Vikings there’s no follow-through. Plots are begun and then dropped so quickly that it feels like nothing has any consequence. We spoke earlier about Rollo raping a slave girl as well as his weird obsession with Lagertha, which are shown in two significant moments which are promptly forgotten one episode later.

C: And there’s also the part where Haraldson has a child killed to guard his treasure.

A: Which is entirely nonsensical. People bury treasure in times of war; as the jarl, he should be giving it away as gifts to show off how awesome he is, not hiding it. A.E. Larsen goes into more detail on Haraldson than we have time to do here, but I still wanted to touch on the most outlandish parts of Haraldson’s story.

C: But to get back on track. I think you were saying that you wanted to know how this massacre in the east has affected Ragnar and Rollo—what happened when they went home and had to admit to their neighbours that everyone with them had been killed?

A: Precisely! And a great way to make that opening scene connect to and impact on later events is if Haraldson’s sons had been part of Ragnar’s company and had died there instead. It would explain why he and Ragnar don’t get on, while also making the jarl a more interesting, more developed character.

C: You wouldn’t even need to change the opening scene. You could just have a later scene—or a line—between Haraldson and Ragnar about this. Adding a real, palpable dynamic between the show’s hero and villain—one we get to witness and understand as viewers—would’ve made a great addition. It’s so disappointing that Vikings misses so many easy fixes.

A: It often feels like the show has a five second memory about everything—who everyone is, what they’re doing and why…

C: What I think makes that particularly inexcusable is that Vikings only has a single writer! There’s no team and seemingly nobody to provide, I don’t know, literary checks and balances—the show’s writer, Michael Hirst, works entirely alone. I’d assumed—I think we both did—that the reason the show was disjointed was because it switched writers halfway through. Instead it just seems like Hirst is, I don’t know—easily distracted. I think that shows the benefit of getting feedback and insight from other people and, well… workshopping.

A: To summarise, the things we would change about Vikings if we had the chance to workshop it are: characters with more depth; continuing with storylines which have been dropped; fixing small inaccuracies; and having more consequences. All the potential is there—Vikings just doesn’t follow through on much of it.


Angela and Calder can be followed on their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson.