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Monday, June 30, 2014

Arrow: Trust But Verify

Well, this was certainly a very busy episode – perhaps a little too busy.

Our main plot involved Oliver and Dig coming to near blows concerning the latest name in Ollie’s book – apparently Ted Gaynor (giggle, snort) is not only a man that Dig served with in Afghanistan, but a commanding officer who once saved his life. Dig point-blank refuses to believe that he could be a suspect in the latest string of armoured truck robberies. Oliver has total faith in his father’s list and decides to pay Ted a little visit.

Naturally, Dig sabotages The Hood’s attempt at questioning Ted by showing up at his office and chasing off the vigilante. Ted is a bodyguard now, just like Dig, and what’s more – is played by Ben Browder. Yup, he’s still got the “aw shucks” nice guy charm, so there’s no telling what side of the equation this character will fall on.

He’s also amazingly uninterested in the hows and whys of Dig turning up at his office in the middle of the night in order to chase off a bow-toting vigilante. Heck, the first question out of my mouth would have been “how the heck did you know he was gonna show up here?” but Ted decides to flag all this in favour of going out for hamburgers.

The whole “loyalty to friends versus commitment to the mission” is an interesting conundrum to introduce to any plot, and Arrow tinkers with the usual formula by spreading it between two individuals: Dig speaks up in favour of trusting Ted, Ollie has condemned the man on the basis of his inclusion in the list. A couple of interesting points emerge from their argument.

First of all, Oliver defends his position by stating that there’s no way he would deliberately distance himself from the people he loves if he didn’t have absolute faith in the list. Huh. Nice point.

But Dig’s counterargument is that the list wasn’t written by Ollie’s father, but by “whoever hired the black archer.” Hmm. Ollie dismisses this argument, suggesting that there’s still a lot more fleshing out to do in his flashbacks.

As it happens, Ted was behind the assaults on the armoured trucks, and after a fairly convoluted series of events (Felicity decrypting the information on the flash-drive, the police not figuring out the obvious pattern behind the way the trucks were hit, Ted pre-emptively kidnapping Carly on the off-chance that Dig would break into the garage on that exact night), Arrow shoots him dead.

Here’s the problem as I see it: it’s nearly impossible to get much of an emotional resonance from one-shot guest stars. There’s barely any time to establish them as three-dimensional people, they exist mainly as a plot device to drive the action, and most of the time they’re lucky if they get to fit into the underlying themes of the episode.  

Ted did better than the likes of Deadshot or Firefly, but still only just scraped by thanks to the novelty of Ben Browder playing against type and the obvious purpose he served as a dark foil to Dig (both ex-army, both struggling with adapting to civilian life, both playing bodyguards to snotty rich kids). 

And all things considered, I like that the show allows Dig to be something more than Ollie’s sounding board and a convenient backup. He has a past and he has a love interest with complications. That’s more than Pete Ross from Smallville ever got. All he had was product placement.

But the divide in Ollie and Dig’s trust issues also links into this episode’s island flashbacks – and they were more compelling than they’ve ever been before. After his friend gets captured and Ollie accidentally kills one of the special ops men, he disguises himself in the dead man’s clothes and makes his way to an encampment marked on a map found in the guy’s pocket.

Luckily for him, all the men wear balaclavas – even when they’re casually lining up to get food (no indication of whether they EAT the food with the balaclavas on). Bless them, the show actually lampshades this nonsense by the end of the episode, for after Ollie is found out, Nigel asks him why all his men cover their faces. It’s something to do with the strength of a person’s eyes, because apparently fulfilling some figurative nonsense is more important than common sense.

But believe it or not, I was thrown by the final reveal of Yao Fei in league with Nigel and the rest of the special ops. What exactly is going on here? Because I’m beginning to feel as though Oliver has been played by these people from the second he landed on this island, all as part of some much grander scheme to shape him into a super soldier. Perhaps they are the ones that didn’t just train Ollie, but set him this particular mission in Starling City.

Meanwhile Thea’s eighteenth birthday is coming up. Though she seems to be mainly composed of droll comebacks and teenage petulance, she occasionally gets something more interesting to do. I was intrigued by her witnessing the conversation between Moira and Malcolm – but unfortunately our little gumshoe completely misconstrues the situation and believes that Moira is having an affair. I’m pretty sure I read this plot in a Sweet Valley High book. And possibly thousands of other teen reads, which tells me that it really shouldn’t be used as a subplot on this show.

A couple of party pills and a joyride later, she’s crashed into a ditch. I care about Thea, but I’m having trouble seeing how her teenage dramas connect to the bigger picture of the show’s plot.

Finally (since I’ve been listing these subplots in decreasing order of how badly they were staged) comes Malcolm’s dinner with Tommy and Laurel. This reached Narm levels of ridiculous when it was eventually revealed that Malcolm’s real motivations in reaching out to his son was actually to get his signature on papers that confirm the shutdown of a free medical clinic that was run by his deceased mother.

As Phoebe Buffet once said: “Too much”.

Then, after Laurel confronts him, Malcolm tells us that getting shot in the head was Mrs Merlyn’s way of teaching her son that the world is a harsh and cruel place. He actually makes it sound as though she got shot on purpose just to teach her son this lesson.

Some free advice: if you feel the need to telegraph a character’s less-than-likeable qualities, then don’t involve puppies, orphans or free medical clinics. Unless you’re writing a comedy.
Miscellaneous Observations:

Yet another example of a person entering a scene and smoothly inserting themselves into a conversation that they can’t possibly have heard from outside the room. Today the task falls to Tommy, discussing Oliver’s car troubles. Seriously, this could be a drinking game. Note to self: put it on TV Tropes.

Nigel: “You do seem rather green.” Heh.

I’ve just noticed that Thea has the same mark on her upper lip as Moira does. Is that deliberate? Because if it’s a natural birthmark that both actresses coincidentally happen to have... wow, great casting!

I get that Merlyn probably is the comic book name of these characters, but it still sounds absurd when said out loud.

Oliver goes to Felicity for a job that actually makes sense for an IT girl’s capabilities. Win!
Finally, I’m really intrigued by Moira and what she represents in this story. More than any other archetype she fits into the Evil Matriarch category (a powerful, ambitious mother figure) – yet at a mere glance you can see that’s an oversimplification of who she is.

I’d like to see more of her as a ruthless businesswoman, but I love the fact that in their portrayal of her, the writers have very much weaponized her maternal instincts. She fights tooth and nail for her children, yet she’s about as far-flung from Cersei Lannister (another powerful Mama Bear) as conceptually possible.

At the same time she’s obviously in Malcolm’s power, she’s also not making much of an effort to break free of it, and though she manages to convey a calm and placid veneer, her children are beginning to notice the cracks in her behaviour.  She’s wise and dignified enough to let Oliver and Thea keep an idealized version of their father, but is clearly in way over her head when it comes to whatever conspiracy Malcolm has her roped into.

What I’m trying to say is that she’s possibly the show’s most original character: an older woman who is allowed to be powerful in one respect, yet disempowered in another; confident and effective on the one hand, afraid and uncertain on the other. Embroiled in some strange conspiracy that we don’t yet know the details of, capable of staging the kidnap of her own son and green-lighting the disappearance of her husband, and keeping secrets just as complex as Oliver’s,  she has what’s still denied so many female characters: sympathy despite moral ambiguity.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Legend of Korra: A Breath of Fresh Air and Rebirth

Korra is back!

In its entirety, The Legend of Korra has “enjoyed” quite a mixed reception. Even before a single episode of the first season had aired, people were antsy about the fact creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were returning to this world, and a little disgruntled about the fact that their new story was going to be set a generation after the conclusion of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I don’t know why exactly this fandom-wide unease existed. I know the embers of the infamous Shipping Wars were raked up when it was confirmed that Aang and Katara married, and that there was a bit of an upset when it became apparent that many of the original characters were now deceased. But perhaps most of it was based on the fact that expectations were so high for Korra to follow in the footsteps of its sublimely good predecessor.

Maybe your experience was different than mine, but from my seat in front of the monitor it felt as though there was a hefty sense of trepidation surrounding the premiere of a brand new chapter in the Avatar saga.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reign: Pilot

Although I plan to get back to watching/reviewing Arrow at some point in the near future, I also have a few episodes of Reign downloaded, and decided to check them out.

To sum up in a single GIF (though there’s plenty more where this came from):

That was some pretty powerful crack. Look, I’ve seen my fair share of anachronistic nonsense. I sat through the pearly whites and costume porn of The Tudors, the rubber-soled boots and crimped hair of The White Queen, the chainsaws and hang-gliding of Robin Hood, the tomatoes and beer cans of Merlin.

But there was something about the aesthetics of those shows that worked. Sure, The Tudors and The White Queen were far too pretty for the time period they depicted, but (as inaccurate as they were) there was at least a fundamental effort to capture the historical events that the characters were embroiled in. Robin Hood and Merlin was something else entirely; two fantasy-adventure shows that were never meant to be taken too seriously (until they were, and became ridiculous as a result).

But Reign is something else altogether. This is like Gossip Girl set in a simulacrum of 16th century France. It’s like one of those documentaries where modern families are forced to live in medieval settings, except with a contemporary soundtrack and clothes borrowed from The Gap. It’s like a bunch of random cosplayers have escaped a Renaissance Fair and are staging some sort of elaborate performance art over the long weekend.

I’m not sure where to start. The hair. The clothes. The makeup. The names (Greer, Kenna, Lola, Aylee??) The casual use of the word “fantastic.” Stylistic low-motion montages of girls fluttering through the dark halls of the French court. And the fact that immersed within all these modern trappings are things like bedding ceremonies and arranged marriages and discussions over the tenuous nature of a girl’s reputation after a rape attempt.

I’m just ... bewildered by what they’re trying to achieve here. It’s like the ladies-in-waiting are in an episode of The OC and Megan Follows is in a serious costume drama. Who is this show for?

To hazard a guess at my own question, I’d say it’s Twilight meets A Knight’s Tale, combining all the self-important teen-drama of the former with the joyful “we don’t give a fuck” attitude of the latter. But in this case the two comparisons make for rather uneasy bedfellows. A Knight’s Tale got by on sheer audacity and anachronistic glee, whereas the pomposity of Twilight and all its familiar trappings: princessy wish-fulfilment, love triangles, interpersonal relationships, and dewy-eyed pretty boys, don’t quite mesh with the atmosphere the show is trying to create.

Did I mention that it also touches on French politics?

The drama centres on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Yes, that Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. So we already know this will end on the sharp edge of an axe. But that’s years away, for now she’s a bright-eyed young girl being brought out of the convent in order to reclaim her place at court and meet her fiancé Francis II, the childhood friend whom she’s been engaged to since she was six.

It springs to mind that between Game of Thrones, The White Queen and Reign, medieval courts have become a stand-in for high school hierarchies. We’ve got Mary, the nervous but spirited new girl who must negotiate this strange new environment. Her ladies-in-waiting are the lovelorn one, the nerdy one, the sexually active one, and ... the other one. There's the spoiled pretty-boy Francis, and the rugged bad-boy Sebastian (love triangle ahoy). Catherine de Medici is a little older than your usual Alpha Bitch, but still doing her best to wage war on the cheerleading squad. Heck, this story would have made just as much sense at a high-class boarding school.   

Were it not for the strangely dark edge to everything. The episode kick-starts with a vision by Nostradamus of a tree in bloom that drips blood onto his face, one that he shares with Catherine de Medici (who apparently keeps him in the basement?), warning her that Mary will be the death of her son.

The Evil Matriarch immediately starts plotting, roping in Lola’s young beau (though I suppose we may as well embrace the weirdness and call him her boyfriend) to offer Mary drugged wine and rape her later that night. Yikes. What Catherine had on this guy goes unexplained, and is likely to remain so considering he gets his head lopped off before the closing credits.

Elsewhere Mary realizes that her engagement with Francis is not the stuff of fairytales. Not only does he look at their relationship in purely pragmatic terms (maybe they’ll marry, maybe they won’t – it all depends on the political climate) but he’s got a mistress on the side, one that he’s not particularly interested in giving up. No wonder Mary is already casting interested glances at his bastard half-brother Sebastian, who gives her the “I understand where you’re coming from” speech and rescues her dog from the forest.

Finally, the girls experience the 16th century equivalent of porn by sneaking away to watch the bedding ceremony between Francis’s newly married sister and her husband, watched over by dour-looking officials but ending up amazingly sensual despite this (and no, I haven’t attended any bedding ceremonies, but I’m pretty sure they were uncomfortable, awkward, perfunctory, and over with as quickly as possible for all involved).

The girls are so taken aback that they race off in slow-motion to the strains of guitar music, only for Kenna/Greer (sorry, can’t tell those two apart yet, only that both actresses look way too modern) to slip her hand southwards, get caught by King Philip, and ... well...

Oh, and in the midst of this teen-drama meets historical-fiction amalgamation, why not add a third element? The supernatural of course! It works for The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf, right? Only instead of vamps and wolves, Reign gets a ghost girl with a sack over her head, who warns Mary of the impending rape attempt by warning her not to drink the wine.

The mentality surrounding the attempted rape was bizarre, what with Lola sobbing that it was all Mary’s fault, Mary trying to get an audience with her rapist in an attempt to protect him, and then Francis coming out with the line “you can’t act like this” (yeah, how dare you almost get raped late at night in your own bedroom!), and very much underlines the show’s uncomfortable disconnect with itself. These girls look and act modern, but they’re trapped in the rigid social constructs/mentalities of 16th century France.

Heck, here’s a new premise for the show: all the ladies-in-waiting are actually time-travellers who go back into the past to protect Mary Stuart from her fate and find boyfriends for themselves.

Yet despite all this snark, there are a few elements of Reign that I not only like, but which have the potential to become truly fascinating with further development:

The court dynamics are already shaping up to be a lot of fun: the lecherous king and his more-intelligent/devious wife, the mistress and her bastard son, the duality of the two half-brothers, Mary and her entourage, Nostradamus in the basement... All good stories are based not only on characters, but the way in which these characters interact with each other. Already the seeds have been sown for some interesting bonds to be either formed or broken within this cast.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the women, specifically in Mary’s coming-of-age story. Adelaide Kane is proving herself better than expected in the role, capturing youth and naivety, but also an awareness of youth and naivety. Many teenagers are convinced they know absolutely everything, but Kane’s Mary has a self-consciousness about her duties and position that she hasn’t quite figured out yet. She can’t quite curb her impetuousness or idealism just yet, but neither is she foolishly mouthing off or throwing her weight around. She wants to be friends to her ladies, but is also aware that they’re counting on her for protection. She wants a romantic connection with her fiancé, but gets a bucket of cold water thrown over her when he voices his reluctance. Hopefully we’re not just going to see her grow from girl to woman, but pawn to player.

As annoyingly clichéd as the whole mother-in-law from hell role is, Megan Follows looks as though she’s going to have a great time. It’s also nice to see Anna Popplewell again; she disappeared a bit after The Chronicles of Narnia.

Miscellaneous Observations

Geez, how old is Megan Follows? I grew up with the Anne of Green Gables adaptations and was astonished to see her age from child to grown woman so quickly throughout the trilogy. But that felt like only a few years ago – not long enough for her to now be edging towards old age. It’s like this woman has lived an entire lifetime over the course of a single decade.

Hilariously, Wikipedia also tells me that Mary’s ladies-in-waiting were called Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston. Okay, I suppose under those circumstances I can see why the names were changed to Greer, Kenna, Lola and Aylee.

Nice opening scene with Nostradamus’s vision in the woods, but also Mary locking eyes with the nun who dies as a result of the poisoned food designed for her.

So what’s out in the woods that attracted Sterling? Sebastian’s mother mentioned something about him being attracted to the blood...

I'll hang in there for a few more episodes, though my general feelings on the whole thing are captured perfectly on Faye's face:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

2011 Christchurch Earthquake

Last weekend I took a drive into the middle of my home city, where the effects of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake are still blatantly apparent.

The pictures below may seem like rundown industrial areas; old warehouses and abandoned buildings lying on the outskirts of a once-busy city - but no. All these photographs were taken in the very heart of Christchurch City, where there is still plenty of life and a slow-but-steady attempt at a rebuild.

One of the strangest aspects of the city at this time is the juxtaposition of empty or destroyed sites existing right next to newly-constructed buildings, giving the entire landscape a bizarre atmosphere of a wasteland that is gradually growing back into a social/cultural hub.

It's not unusual to sit in an outdoor café and enjoy the view of crumbling brickwork on the building opposite.



I really can't emphasis enough that all these images were photographed on the same street. There are attempts (as with the flower beds) to infuse the neighbourhood with some degree of life and colour, but the subsequent oddness of the environment is impossible to fully capture.

As an aside, the construction site in the third image down was once the night club where my parents met each other.


But as it happens, the corgis are back! I didn't even know they existed before the local paper informed me that they had returned to the area, so I made sure to go and see them. Just outside one of the cafés (which boasts a great view of a half-destroyed building) the three of them were sculptured in honour of the Queen's bicentennial - or something like that.

And if you think one looks shinier than the others, that's because one was stolen and had to be replaced. Why someone felt the need to steal a bronze corgi is anyone's guess.

So things here are ever-so-slowly crawling back to a more natural state, though it'll be years and years before Christchurch feels like a fully mended city once again. Still, little things like flowers and sunshine and bronze corgis can't help but make you feel just a little more optimistic in what is otherwise such a strange wasteland.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Frozen

Last night I FINALLY watched Disney’s Frozen, making me the last person on Earth to see what the big deal was. With even less resemblance to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen than 2010’s Tangled was to Rapunzel, but with twice the princesses to add to the franchise's line-up, it focuses on sisters Queen Elsa of Arendelle and her younger sibling Princess Anna.

Born with cryokinetic powers (seriously, that’s a real word) that allow her to produce ice and snow from her fingertips, Elsa accidentally injures Anna as a child, leading her parents to seek help from the trolls. The king troll takes away Anna's memories of Elsa’s gift and tells Elsa that in the attempt to control her gifts: “fear will be your enemy.”

Naturally, this leads to her misguided parents (are there any other kind in fairy tales?) doing the exact opposite of what any reasonable person would do in this situation. They isolate Elsa, teach her to suppress her powers, and leave Anna in the dark as to why her sister now wants nothing to do with her. Heck, How It Should Have Ended sums it up perfectly:

Like Tangled, Frozen has a huge amount of setup to get through before it’s ready for the real meat of the story, which largely involves Anna’s attempt to reach her sister both physically and emotionally after Elsa’s powers spiral out of control during her coronation. In fear of hurting people she flees for the mountains – inadvertently leaving Arendelle caught up in an eternal winter.

Thanks to pop-culture osmosis, I already knew most of what followed: Anna teams up with a mountain man called Kristoff, Elsa sings Let It Go, there’s a talking snowman, Anna’s love interest Prince Hans turns out to be mercenary, and only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart (which is nicely subverted not just in the sense that it’s sisterly and not romantic love that saves the day, but that the roles of the sisters are reversed in the fulfilling of it – Anna is the one that has to give rather than receive the act, and subsequently it's her heart that needs thawing, not Elsa's).

I knew about the controversies: the lack of diversity, the cultural appropriation of the Sami people, the similarities of the character designs to those of Tangled, the changes made from book to film, the apparent cameo of a gay couple, but I also knew about the positives: not one but two female leads, an emphasis on sisterly love over romantic love, and the apparent cameo of a gay couple. 

But since so much has already been said about this film and what everyone already knows about it, here’s a list of basic observations of things that I didn’t know going into it for the first time:

1) For a film that’s toted as the first Disney film to have two princesses as its leads, Elsa isn’t all that central. She's more what the film is about as opposed to its protagonist, a role that definitely belongs to Anna (kind of like how Sleeping Beauty was about Princess Aurora, but starred the three fairies).

I’m pretty sure Kristoff clocks in more screen time than Elsa does, which is odd considering she’s (arguably) the most interesting character in the whole film. Her lack of focus surprised me considering I’d read all the metas about how Elsa’s life could be construed as a metaphor for mental illness and/or queerness, yet the film itself doesn’t afford her enough screen time to explore either interpretation with much depth.

2) The whole deal with Anna having her memories of Elsa’s powers erased when she was a child bothered me considering there’s never full disclosure later on in the story. This was probably one of the two most glaring flaws in the film, especially considering all the publicity that tries to sell the sisterly relationship as the focal point of the story.

The truth is that Anna spends most of her life completely bewildered and hurt as to why her older sister suddenly shuts her out of her life – and she’s still none the wiser (in regards to the specifics) by the ending.

The strangest thing is that there are plenty of times during Anna’s journey towards Elsa when it appears her lost memories are returning to her. When she meets Olaf, a reconstruction of the snowman the two girls made when they were children, Anna reacts with a definite “ping” when he introduces himself.

Olaf goes on to declare his love for Anna (“because I love you, I insist you run”) just as quickly as Hans does (the difference being that Olaf is sincere about it) and nearly melts in his attempt to start a fire for her (“some people are worth melting for”). More pertinently, at one point he directly echoes the words Anna spoke as a child: “the sky’s awake”, leaving me wondering if perhaps Elsa’s magic had made Olaf some sort of embodiment of the sisters’ childhood love for each other.

It seemed to be the perfect setup for Olaf to help Anna regain her memories of the accident and thereby gain a fuller understanding of Elsa’s fear and confusion. Except... that didn’t happen. Unless Elsa filled her in off-screen, Anna is still just as ignorant of the accident that started this whole mess at the end of the film. As such, I’m not certain why the removal of Anna’s memories was necessary for the story, or why her entire family chose to keep her in the dark about Elsa’s powers.

The story could have easily followed the same course with Anna’s memories intact, and probably would have given the girls’ relationship more resonance (as it is, Anna spends most of the film chasing the idea of a relationship with her sister that doesn’t really exist in the way she thinks it does).

3) The second biggest problem is the characterization of Prince Hans. After a whirlwind romance between him and Anna, the film ultimately casts him into the role of Secret Villain, revealing that he was after Anna’s kingdom and wealth the whole time.

Well, okay. That’s not necessarily a bad idea in itself. Yet not only is there no foreshadowing for this (at least none that I noticed), but a huge amount of time and effort is put into building up the idea that he’s actually a decent guy (to the point where there are a couple of moments pre-reveal that show him acting like a decent person even when there’s no reason for him to keep up the façade).

Just as The Princess and the Frog deconstructed the notion that a person can simply wish on a star and have all their dreams come true, I liked the fact that Frozen poked fun at the Love at First Sight trope by having other characters points out how ridiculous it is when Hans and Anna announce their engagement on the same night they meet. 

That they ultimately make Hans a villain feels like taking the easy way out, for the idea behind subverting Love at First Sight could have worked just as well if Hans had been exactly who he said he was, only for Anna to forge a much closer bond with Kristoff during the course of their adventure together, demonstrating just how shallow her romance with Hans was by comparison.

Naturally, her True Love’s Kiss with Hans would have failed since it was based on nothing more than hormones and superficiality, yet he could have still posed a threat to Elsa by misguidedly trying to kill her after the failure of his kiss with Anna, believing it to be the only way to save all of Arendelle (with the conveniently-placed Duke of Weselton on hand to spur him on).

4) I have no idea how true this is, but I read somewhere that Frozen’s songs were composed well before the script was completed – that in fact, Elsa was originally going to be the film’s villain before the writers heard Let It Go and reshaped the entire character based on its lyrics.

If that’s true, it certainly explains a lot about the film’s structure. Quite a lot of the plot seems to revolve around the songs, as opposed to the songs supplementing the story and characters. As such, the story has a rather piecemeal quality to it: all the separate parts are beautifully rendered and performed, but when put together it never quite merges into a cohesive whole.

For example, Love is an Open Door is a catchy song set to a fun sequence of visuals with plenty of great character beats that depict Anna/Hans falling in love in a way that feels very organic and sweet. If their love story was played entirely straight, I would have embraced the fairy tale logic and bought it. Heck, it would have felt totally justified after the film had already gone to such lengths to establish Anna’s profound loneliness.

Yet knowing that Hans had ulterior motives all along, I can’t help but feel in hindsight that too much time was spent on something that wasn’t all that important anyway. That extends to many of the other songs, such as Olaf dreaming about the summer (the lingering question of whether anyone is going to break the impossibility of this dream to him never amounts to much) or the match-making shenanigans of the trolls, which only seems to exist as a way of giving these guys a purpose that goes beyond exposition.

In short, every character, every idea, every subplot is given just enough screen-time to have an impact, but not enough to be explored to its full potential. Is the key relationship between Elsa and Anna or Anna and Kristoff? Is the antagonist Hans, the Duke of Weselton, or Elsa’s crippling fear of her powers? Is the point of the story to rescue Elsa from herself or to have Anna reach a greater understanding of what her sister needs? The film needed to pick one option and stick with it OR make sure that each one got its proper weight in the storyline. 

5) Though Disney certainly played around with The Little Mermaid, it kept the general premise of the story (mermaid falls in love with man, gives up voice to sea witch in order to be with him). But as I said earlier, don’t expect anything in Frozen to even remotely resemble Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Besides some ice and a reindeer, I suppose.

Which is a shame since it’s a great story and would make for a stunningly beautiful film (though I think there's a pretty dire live-action Hallmark version starring Bridget Fonda out there somewhere).

There are a few little nods here and there to the source material: Prince Hans’s name seems to be a shout-out to Hans Christian Anderson, there are mentions of ice being lodged in a person’s head or heart (the story had a similar conceit in which shards of a glass mirror could become trapped in someone’s eye and/or heart), and I read somewhere that apparently Hans is meant to represent the mirror what with his ability to reflect other people's expectations whilst concealing his own darkness.

And if nothing else The Snow Queen would have made a much better title than Frozen, just as The Bear and the Bow would have been better than Brave. But hey, don't want to alienate the young male audience, right? Though they didn't seem to have a problem with The Little Mermaid (updated title: Wet) or Beauty and the Beast (updated title: Hairy) so are we meant to assume that boys have gotten more sexist since the Eighties/Nineties?

6) Okay, if it feels like I’ve been overly-critical with all this, it’s probably just because Frozen has been so hyped for so long that finally watching it was quite a surreal experience. I knew so much of what was coming (heck, I was reciting all the lyrics to Let It Go whilst Elsa sang them), that the little bits and pieces I didn’t know about felt like sprinkles on a cake: pleasant enough but hardly something to fully satisfy me.

But any successful film that has two women as its leads is a big step forward, and the animation throughout is (predictably) beautiful. One scene has Kristoff brushing through ice crystals that have formed on overhanging branches, which make a chiming sound as they move together. The scene serves no other purpose but to be beautiful.

I loved the sequences of Anna engaging in conversation with the portraits and busts; such a simple and poignant way of conveying both her loneliness and optimism. I loved the back-and-forth between her and Kristoff (and will probably get in trouble for saying that I found their rapport more fun and natural than the sisterly bond).

I called that the chandelier in Elsa’s ice palace would plummet and nearly hit someone the instant I saw it crystalize, because that’s the only reason chandeliers exist in the movies. Olaf wasn’t nearly as irritating as I thought he’d be; in fact he got the biggest laugh out of me (his cheerful off-screen “hello!” to someone no more than a second after he’d assured Kristoff that he’d stay out of sight). And I would totally wear the dresses that are on display throughout the film - especially Anna's green one.

Ultimately, the feelings I have about Frozen lie in the two extremes of how it deals with its complexities. On the one hand the animators have boasted of rendering every individual snowflake depicted in the film as unique. On the other, the film’s climax posits that the years of Elsa’s isolation, depression and fear are wiped clean by her sister’s abounding love for her, leaving her completely in control and unashamed of the powers she’s spent most of her life trying to suppress.

In that sense, Frozen is a bit like one of its snowflakes: certainly very beautiful, but with an underlying emotional realism that melts in seconds.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Exploring Tropes: You Shall Not Pass

Since this is my very first entry for this particular project, I’m going to treat myself by starting with one of my favourite tropes.

Meet Mindy.


A massive army of enemy soldiers is chasing her, led by an unstoppable warrior that none can withstand. Her companions are flagging; each one exhausted and terrified. They can’t hold out much longer. But it’s imperative that their mission is completed. What’s at stake is greater than any of them.

All they need is a little more time in which to escape. Even just a few seconds might make all the difference. So Mindy comes to a decision. She’s going to stop, turn around, and face the insurmountable odds behind her. She’s about to pull a You Shall Not Pass.

The gesture will probably come at the cost of her own life, but she’s okay with that. If it means her friends can get away safely, or that they’ll successfully complete their all-important mission, it’ll be worth it. Because those bad guys are determined to get past her, and if they do, the consequences will be dire.

It’s important not to confuse what she’s doing with a Last Stand. That’s when a heroine knows full well that she’s going to die and so plans to take as many enemies with her as she can. You Shall Not Pass is more specific in regards to what actually happens during the course of its fulfilment: stopping an enemy from getting somewhere it wants to go, whether it be repelling an invasion, slowing down a single attacker, or something between those two extremes.

But more than that, the crucial difference between the two tropes is that a Last Stand is all about going out with a bang, whereas You Shall Not Pass is about buying time for other people. That, to me, makes it more stirring, more heroic, more selfless – and more rewarding to watch.

And below are some of the most illustrative examples of this trope in action.

Before you start reading, be aware of two major caveats. The first is that these are not what I’d necessarily consider “the best” of the trope (as subjective as that is), but rather examples that I think best illustrate what the trope is about. By choosing these examples, I can hopefully explore the nuances of this storytelling device in more detail, rather than just listing six variations that play out in the exact same way.

Second of all, I can only make this list out of stuff I’ve already seen. So if you feel something obvious is missing, it’s probably because I simply don’t know about it. You’re more than welcome to add it to the comments section, and maybe one day I’ll get the chance to check it out.

1. Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum from The Lord of the Rings

Well, obviously. You don’t make a You Shall Not Pass list and not put this on it. It’s probably one of the most famous literary examples of this trope, and Gandalf even goes so far as to yell out the exact words “you shall not pass!” as he faces down the Balrog.

 Here’s the setup: The Fellowship is racing through the Mines of Moria, chased by a legion of orcs – and something else. In a brief moment of reprieve, Gandalf shares his fears with the rest of the Fellowship:

"I found myself suddenly faced by something that I have not met before. I could think of nothing to do but try and put a shutting spell on the door... As I stood there I heard orc-voices on the other side: at any moment I thought they would burst it open. I could not hear what was said; they seemed to be talking in their own hideous language.  All I heard was ghash: that is “fire”. Then something came into the chamber – I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent."

They race through the Second and First Hall of Moria to the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, a structure so narrow that they’re forced to go across in single file. Behind them swarm hundreds of orcs and trolls, but Legolas notices in terror that they are falling back in the face of a terrible great shadow that rises up behind them. Gandalf orders the others to escape across the bridge as he takes position in the middle of the span, facing the Balrog with only his staff and sword: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

The film captures the scene almost to the letter:

Damn. That Hope Spot gets me every time: the moment in which it appears Gandalf is triumphant, only for the lash of the Balrog’s whip to twine around his ankle and drag him to his (supposed) doom.

Why does it work so well? In recent years Peter Jackson has become so enamoured of computer-generated special effects that his films have lost some of their humanity. But in The Fellowship of the Ring there were some beautiful touches in the lead-up to Gandalf’s You Shall Not Pass, namely the myriad of hints that Gandalf knew what was waiting for him in the Mines of Moira. Ian McKellan does a sublime job of conveying Gandalf’s secret dread as the Fellowship head closer and closer to his sacrifice.

And it’s that foreknowledge more than anything that makes it such a powerful example of the trope. This is what You Shall Not Pass is all about: knowingly putting yourself in danger for the sake of others, with no guarantee that your actions will have pay-off, and hoping only to buy more time for those who need it. Even Gandalf’s famous last words: “fly you fools!” is based on his concern for the others.

In other words, this is a perfect You Shall Not Pass. It doesn’t get more iconic than this.

2. The Spartan Army at the Battle of Thermopylae from 300

This is another shoe-in for the list, the more so because it has the added bonus of being based on real history. Granted, the Battle of Thermopylae could just as easily be categorized as a Last Stand, what with the alliance of Greek armies holding their ground against the invading Persian Empire against overwhelming odds, but there is an element of self-sacrifice and stalling for time that also makes it a quintessential You Shall Not Pass.

Here’s the setup: the Persian Empire is invading Greece, and the warring city-states have decided to unite against the greater threat. There are two locales where the Greeks plan to deflect Persian advancement: the Straits of Artemisium and the Pass of Thermopylae. In the summer of 480 BC, a Greek force of approximately seven thousand men march north to block the pass, including three hundred Spartans led by their king Leonidas.

Facing a Persian army of about one hundred thousand men trying to force their way through the pass and onto the mainland (whatever the true figure, suffice to say they were vastly outnumbered), the objective of the Greeks is very simple: stop them.


For seven days (three of battle) the Greeks hold out against the Persians, their overwhelming numbers nullified by the Greeks’ ingenious use of the geography to funnel the enemy army and easily dispatch their restricted numbers. It’s only after the Greeks are betrayed that the battle turns in Xerxes’s favour with the discovery of a small path that leads behind the Greek lines. Now their position is compromised.

On realizing defeat is inevitable, the entire Greek army cannot simply get up and leave. As soon as the enemy realizes the front is being thinned, they’ll attack.  An evacuation must be done in stages; small units departing in a phase withdrawal. But this – you guessed it – takes time.

There’s a lot of speculation as to why the real King Leonidas chose to stay and fight to the last man. Some believe it was a matter of honour (Spartans were not supposed to retreat; though others think that it was this very event that gave rise to that decree), others that Leonidas was fulfilling a prophesy that had been told before he left for battle: that only by his death could Sparta be saved. But the theory that most ascribe to (and what makes it qualify for this trope) is that Leonidas chose to form a rear-guard so that the rest of the Greek army could safely retreat.
Perhaps disappointingly, the movie 300 tries to sell his decision as a matter of honour and destiny; of the proud outnumbered Spartans refusing to bow to foreigners; of each man hoping that their sacrifice will spur others into taking arms against the Persian invaders. This takes much away from the role the 300 Spartans (and uncredited Thespians and Thebans that stayed with them) played as a covering force for a tactical withdrawal, giving the Greeks behind them the opportunity to get away and reassemble. 

Yet despite this, the subject matter means the film cannot help but adhere to the tenets of You Shall Not Pass. Even in the midst of slow-motion anachronisms and stylistic abdominal muscles, the crux of the storyline rests on the fact that Greek soldiers held the Thermopylae Pass: first to deflect the invaders, then to permit the escape of their countrymen.

Why does it work so well? Simply because 300 is the embodiment of this trope. By holding the pass and covering the retreat, Leonidas saved more than three thousand men who could regroup elsewhere and continue the fight against the invading force. Every day, every hour that he bought them in delaying the Persian advance increased their chances of reaching safety.

If you can look past the questionable aspects of the film (it caught some flak for its portrayal of the Persians), then its basis in history makes it all the more stirring. This really happened. And best of all, the sacrifice paid off – in a sense. Though Thermopylae was ultimately a victory for the invading Persian army, the inspirational example it set means that it is the Spartans, not the Persians, who have since been immortalized in Western culture.

3. River Tam from Serenity

Admit it, you either cried or cheered (or both) when River Tam bid her brother a tearful farewell and sprinted down the facility tunnel to take on the gang of Reavers hammering at the door. But what really makes this example qualify for the list is that it beautifully merges the two fundamental reasons why anyone would pull a You Shall Not Pass: for the sake of a cause greater than oneself, and to save the life of another person.

Here’s the set up: Thousands of years into the future, humanity has terraformed and colonized hundreds of planets, most of them united under the governmental body known as the Alliance. A rebellion fought by the Independents has failed, among them Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the rundown freighter-ship Serenity.

But the Alliance has some dark secrets; one of them being River Tam, a psychic and hyper-intelligent teenager whose brother Simon successfully smuggled her out of the Alliance base and hid her on board Serenity. She has plenty of secrets stored away in her brain, one of them being the fate of the terraformed planet Miranda.

On investigating, the crew of Serenity discover a world full of dead bodies that have seemingly just laid down and died. A holographic message from an Alliance soldier explains that a gas called “Pax” was filtered into the atmosphere in the hopes that it would root out aggression in the population. It worked – a little too well. Thirty million people simply lost the desire to live.

But in one-tenth of the population, the Pax had the opposite effect, resulting in the bogeymen that have haunted the show from its inception: Reavers. They’re mindless, raping, flaying, animalistic cannibals – and they’re the work of the Alliance.

Armed with this terrible secret, the crew of Serenity performs a classic You Shall Not Pass as they hold off the Reavers storming the facility where they hope to broadcast the holographic message to the galaxy. While Mal goes on ahead to the backup unit, the rest of the crew plan to buy him the time he needs by drawing the fire of the Reavers.

With only a few weapons and a wall of crates, they hold out for as long as they can before retreating through the blast doors – which can only close from the outside. River is a terrified wreck, only to snap out of her panic when Simon is shot. Standing over him, she says... well, see for yourself:

I think my favourite touch is that before the blast doors close, River remembers to grab Simon’s medical bag and throw it through the narrowing gap. And that Joss Whedon takes full advantage of Summer Glau’s dancing ability to choreograph the fight scene.

Why does it work so well? The key to this example is payoff. When River decides to throw herself into the fray and battle over a dozen Reavers by herself, it’s actually the climax of three story-arcs that were carefully established not only in the film, but in the television series that preceded it.

Despite FOX network cancelling Firefly before it had even finished its first season, Joss Whedon still had the advantage of drawing upon what had been initiated on the small-screen to shape the course of the film. This was the culmination of River’s portrayal as a traumatized but powerful teenage girl, Mal’s loss of purpose after the defeat of the Independents, and the relationship between the Tam siblings, arguably the core dynamic of the entire show.

As I said before, the Serenity crew holding off the Reavers encompasses both motivations that usually accompany the You Shall Not Pass trope. Mal and the rest of the crew are prepared to fight and die for their cause, having accepted the responsibility to speak on behalf of those the Alliance has destroyed in their bid to control human behaviour.

But River is spurred to fight only when Simon is injured. After fourteen episodes and a feature film depicting Simon as The Caretaker to his extremely volatile sister, River now steps up. And after being depicted for so long as a victim of torture and experimentation, after years of being groomed as a human weapon by the Alliance, it’s an intensely rewarding moment when she finally gets to unleash all that she’s become against the very people who shaped her.

4. Septa Mordane and Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones

I’ll admit, I was in agony over making this choice, simply because one of the show’s most recent episodes (The Watchers on the Wall) had another near-perfect demonstration of this trope. A mere six members of the Night's Watch hold the inner gate of the tunnel against a gigantic, furious, terrifying giant whilst shouting their vows. They pay with their lives, but they hold the gate.

Yet I’m not choosing that example. I’m passing in favour of something that happened way back in season 1.

Here’s the setup: After the death of King Robert Baratheon and the revelation that Ned Stark knows the truth about the heir's incestuous origins, the Lannisters make their move against the Starks. Hoping to silence them, members of the Kingsguard are rounding up the family; slaughtering the servants and taking the children into custody. Or at least trying to.

Arya Stark is practicing sword fighting with her tutor Syrio Forel, and Sansa Stark is walking the corridors with her nursemaid Septa Mordane. As soon as the adults realize what’s going on, both move to protect the children in their care: Septa Mordane by instructing Sansa to run to her room and bar the door; Syrio Forel by using a wooden practice sword to deliver a pretty epic smack-down against six armed men.



But both gestures are doomed. Although Syrio buys Arya enough time to escape, the Lannister men quickly recover and surround him, shattering his practice sword and presumably killing him. Septa Mordane’s sacrifice is doubly-tragic, for not only is she killed by the soldiers, but her gesture is ultimately futile. Sansa is taken captive and becomes a hostage to the Lannisters.

Yet Mordane's final moment, in which she approaches the bloody swords of the approaching Kingsguard, with nothing but her own body to defend herself with and clearly no plan to slow them down beyond simply standing there, is one of the most powerful death scenes of the show (and that’s saying something considering the amount of deaths depicted in Game of Thrones).

If she had gone with Sansa she would have only slowed her down. She chooses to stay and stare down her murderers on the off-chance it will buy Sansa a few extra seconds to get to her room. It’s no less heroic or powerful than Syrio’s flashy sword-play and verbal disgust towards those that would threaten a child.

Why does it work so well? And why did I pick this over the Night's Watch taking down a giant?

Here’s the thing: parents will do anything for their offspring. It’s a given that any mother or father will willingly give up their lives to protect their own children. But there is a great unifying understanding that exists throughout the world – that we should look out for those who are most vulnerable. That is, children. 

Every parent desperately wants to believe that if their child is hurt or endangered while they’re not around, somebody else will step up to protect them.

And that’s what happens here, even though neither Syrio or Mordane will ever be credited for it. Both face their deaths for a child they are responsible for, a child that they love, but also a child that is not their own. Because it's every adult's intrinsic duty to protect a child in need. What kind of person are you if you do not?

Both characters recognise the danger long before the children do (Arya was prepared to go with the Lannisters before Syrio puts his arm out to stop her; Sansa questions Mordane before the latter insists on her leaving), but what I find most interesting about the way their deaths are portrayed (though there is still speculation that Syrio survived) is that both occur off-screen. It emphasizes the idea that it is not their demise, but their actions directly prior to their deaths that matter. In the last few moments of their lives, each one is defined by their choice to protect a child.

5. Shaak Ti from Star Wars: Clone Wars

Right from the start of compiling this list, I knew this example would be included – mainly because this is a perfect example of a You Shall Not Pass failing.  As such, it illustrates just how powerful this trope can be, even when it doesn’t work out the way our heroes want it to.

Here’s the setup: The Clone Wars are in full-swing, with the Republic’s clone troopers fighting the Separatists’ droid army on nearly every inhabited planet. Unbeknownst to our Jedi heroes, the entire conflict is being controlled by the secretive Sith Lord Sidious, whose ultimate goal is the transformation of the Republic into an Empire with him at its head.

In disguise as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, a staunch member of the Republic, Sidious initiates his endgame plan when he arranges for his own kidnapping at the hands of the Separatist General Grievous, all part of a ploy to cast himself into an innocent light and simultaneously lure Anakin over to the Dark Side by pitting him against Darth Tyranus in the rescue attempt that follows.

But the Jedi are unaware of all this. All they know is that Palpatine is an important statesman who must be protected at all costs. Shaak Ti and her companions Foul Moudama and Roron Corobb (where do they get these names?) attempt to escort the Senator to the safety of an underground bunker whilst fighting off MagnaGuards and the terrifying General Grievous. At the bunker’s turbo-lift station, Shaak Ti opts to stay behind and guard the tunnel while Palpatine and the other Jedi go on ahead, buying them enough of a head-start to outrun their pursuers.

What follows is a fantastic fight scene in which Shaak Ti takes on at least a dozen MagnaGuards all by herself. But then, just as she seems overwhelmed... they withdraw. Too late, she realizes the mistake she’s made: by staying behind she’s left Foul and Roron vulnerable to General Grievous, who is lying in wait for them in the bunker.

And of course, the cruellest element to all of this is that neither she nor any of the other Jedi knew that Senator Palpatine was pulling the strings the whole time: he wants to be captured, and he couldn’t care less how many Jedi die in the attempt to protect him. They play completely into his hands. All their sacrifices were in vain. And yet despite this...

Why does it work so well? For the most part, it’s because Shaak Ti fails that the use of this trope is so powerful. Consider this: despite Shaak Ti’s efforts being ultimately futile, and despite the fact that Senator Palpatine gets exactly what he wants, none of it negates Shaak Ti’s heroism or bravery. It’s still a heart-rending sequence, and when you’re caught up in the action, you forget that what’s at stake (in the larger sense) is actually the life of a man whose death would be far more beneficial to the good guys.

That’s the real beauty of this trope: the circumstances can be pointless, the gesture futile, the cause unworthy and the lives of those you seek to protect lost, but it remains that You Shall Not Pass is not just about cause and effect – it’s a mark of characterization. If any character is prepared to pull off a You Shall Not Pass then you have yourself a hero. Period. Whether they’re more motivated by a cause or loved ones, it ultimately doesn’t matter.

It is the act of self-sacrifice, of choosing to fight for something bigger than themselves, of clinging to hope against impossible odds, even if it’s hope for someone else to pull through in the wake of your own death that makes this trope so powerful.

Shaak Ti’s final words in Clone Wars is: “I failed.” She did, to an even greater degree than she was aware of at the time. But at the same time – she didn’t fail. Her You Shall Not Pass was negated, but the fact that she attempted one is a triumph in itself.

6. Mai from Avatar the Last Airbender

There are two reasons for this example’s placement on this list. The first is that it’s a nice twist on the physicality of this trope: instead of pulling a You Shall Not Pass by standing in front of her opponents, Mai actually sneaks up on them from behind in order to slow them down. The second is a bit more personal.

If there’s one trope I hate more than any other, it’s Die For Our Ship, in which a fandom will hate a character because they’re deemed an impediment to another ship (usually fans will come up with a long list of unrelated reasons why they don’t like this character, but you can always tell what their real motivation is; and often their flaws are amplified in order to justify the over-the-top hatred). Bonus points if the preferred ship is clearly not going to become canon anyway, with or without the presence of the perceived “impediment”.

Mai was a huge target of Die For Our Ship from those who shipped Zuko/Katara. Now for the record, there’s nothing wrong with shipping Zutara, and plenty of people managed to do so without raging at the canon love interests. But the amount of vitriol that was ultimately spewed at Mai was just beyond the pale.

So she’s making this list simply because this is her crowning moment, one which vindicates her as a worthy partner for Zuko (not that she needed to prove anything), and because all the stupid reasons haters came up with to diss her were pretty much blown out of the water by this scene.

Here’s the set-up: Prince Zuko has turned his back on the Fire Nation and joined Team Avatar, having finally stood up to his abusive father and decided to right the wrongs his country has inflicted on the rest of the world. But in doing so he had to leave behind his girlfriend Mai, leaving only a note to explain his abandonment of her.

But during a mission to rescue a man from a well-nigh inescapable prison, Zuko and Mai cross paths, allowing Mai the chance to confront him on his decision to ditch her. Suffice to say, it doesn’t go very well.

They're not getting out of here without some help.

Once Zuko’s cover is blown, he and his allies race for the gondola that will see them safely off the island, taking the warden with them as a hostage to ensure their captors don’t cut the line and send them all plummeting to their deaths. But the warden, a man obsessed with his “no escapees” record, manages to break free of his bonds and yell “cut the line!” to his underlings. They obey, knowing that he’d rather die than see any prisoners escape.

There’s absolutely nothing Zuko can do as the prison-guards begin sawing through the metal cables that hold the gondolas aloft. But luckily, someone else comes to his rescue.




Using her trademark stilettos, Mai pins at least seven of the prison guards to the walls and floor of the prison in order to release the cable without interference and allow Zuko’s escape.

Why does this example work so well? Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with my personal feelings of vindication for a female character that was treated like shit by the fan-base. But the example is hugely rewarding from a characterization point of view.

Throughout the series Mai has been portrayed as a stoic, lethargic, emotionless young woman who didn’t act particularly concerned even when her baby brother went missing. Her skill in knife-throwing was well-established (with the creators revealing that long hours of boredom and loneliness honed her skills), and various fight scenes demonstrated that she could hold her own against more powerful opponents.

And most interesting of all, she seemed to be one of only two people on earth (the other being Iroh) who wasn’t particularly intimidated or afraid of Azula. On more than one occasion she was even seen to stand up to the terrifying princess.

But the only person who seemed able to break through her veneer of coldness was Zuko – a bond that was seemingly broken for good after she furiously confronts him after his capture at Boiling Rock (not helped by the way he locks her in the holding cell as he makes his escape).

Which all means that it came as a surprise when Mai arrived on the scene to secure Zuko’s escape. Yet at the same time, it doesn't seem wildly out of character or totally out of left-field. We know Mai’s feelings for Zuko run deep, we know she’s a gifted knife-thrower, and we know doesn’t live in fear of Azula, despite knowing that there will dire consequences for her defiance.

Unlike some of the other examples, her motivation is entirely personal. Zuko is not the only person on that gondola, but you can tell that Mai doesn’t really give a shit about anyone else. And there’s something rather endearing about that in a character such as Mai. She’s in this for Zuko and Zuko alone – more than that, she’s rising above her own anger and sense of betrayal in order to save the life of the man she loves.

 And c’mon, you have to love the line: “I’m saving the jerk who dumped me.”

In short, it’s an interesting perspective flip on the usual way in which a You Shall Not Pass is staged (with Mai stopping the prison guards from behind instead of doubling back and standing her ground), it’s pretty damn badass when you consider this is a teenage girl winning against several armed guards, and it’s a crucial element of Azula’s impending mental breakdown, when Mai coolly informs her that she “miscalculated.”

Love trumped fear. That’s what this trope is all about.


So what have we learned here? If you’re writing your very own You Shall Not Pass, then it’s important to understand why this trope is so popular and where its power lies. By doing so, you can ensure that your own version will have just as much resonance as those listed above.

You Shall Not Pass works so well because of the fact that it manages to be both hopeful and tragic at the same time. It’s death and life combined – one character dies so that others can live. It also says so much about the character involved: their selflessness, their understanding of something greater than themselves, and/or their love for their companions.

Whether it’s based on something strictly personal or in service to a cause you really can’t escape the fact that both motivations will become intermingled. There will always be an element of the bigger picture and personal love involved – Mai for example only wanted to save Zuko, but in doing so she started a chain reaction that helped the Avatar save the world. Conversely, the 300 Spartans were carrying out a military manoeuvre in protecting Greece from Persian invasion, but were simultaneously saving the lives of all the soldiers that retreated.

Life and death, big picture and personal love, self-sacrifice and great escapes – it’s a trope that combines extreme opposites, and as such it’s very hard to go wrong in writing about it. The trope hardly ever fails to elicit an emotional response. You’d have to be one of the worst writers of all time to fail with this one.

Yet it’s important to not get this trope mixed up with a Last Stand. If you’re preparing for a Last Stand, your character knows they’ve already lost. Their goal is to simply accrue a body count before they die. A Last Stand is about death, but You Shall Not Pass is ultimately about life.

That makes it inherently more hopeful. It's facing death so that others may live. It’s a desperate stall for time.

A You Shall Not Pass can be as big or as small in terms of physicality as you like, from Gandalf taking on a Balrog to Septa Mordane simply standing in front of approaching soldiers with bloodied swords.

Same difference.
It can be a head-on confrontation, or a surprise attack from behind. Tension arises from the fact there’s a chance the sacrifice might be in vain – after all, they can’t guarantee that the bought time will be enough for their friends to escape, but the emotion derives from the fact that they’re willing to take that chance anyway.  

And even if they do fail - even if their friends die or their cause crumbles, the act itself still retains its nobility. Whatever their cause, whoever their friends, they’ve decided that it’s worth their own life to protect.

Capture that mentality, and you’ll end up with a perfect You Shall Not Pass.