Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Top Five 2015 Baseball/Fantasy Baseball Stories So Far

Baseball presents a wide variety of surprises every year; some good, some bad. But there are some stories that just blow you away, and we've had our share in the short season so far. Because baseball goes along so well with its fantasy counterpart (and because I can't help but look at every baseball story within a fantasy context), I'll include a little fantasy spin here as well, when applicable.

1. Are the Nationals actually this bad?

I mean, obviously they're not this bad. This pace would be unsustainable for a team that didn't have top-to-bottom the best rotation in baseball. But the Nationals are a team that a lot of people, including ESPN and myself, picked to win the World Series. After tonight's come-from-behind victory over the Braves, they're 8-13, tied for last in the NL East.

I still expect their rotation to bear out and to at least notch 80-85 wins, but this early stretch has shown just how foolish it was to trade Tyler Clippard. He may not be lighting it up for the A's, but the bullpen depth was already suspect, and Yunel Escobar is utterly replaceable.

Anybody still got Rafael Soriano's phone number?

2. Dee Gordon is teaching us all an important lesson.

All throughout the preseason, you couldn't take two steps without hearing someone talk about how Dee Gordon's production was incredible for a few weeks early in the season, and then just solid the rest of the way. Most fantasy players took that to mean that his production during those "down" months was the correct representation of his skillset. A few people (like myself) saw that short explosion and had dreams of Dee Gordon shaped sugarplums dancing in their heads.

But the truth is that Gordon, like every other baseball player, can't be identified as only his hills or only his valleys. He's all of them, the whole topography of his production. So while he's blasting off right now (#14 rated player in Yahoo), his final statistics for the season will probably be somewhere around where they were last year. And that works fine for me, as a Gordon owner and someone who's always hurting for steals.

3. Ace relievers always look better early in the season than they ought to.

Now, don't take this as an invitation to try to lowball me on Wade Davis, who I own in a couple of leagues. But when you look at the top rated pitchers in Yahoo (and presumably other systems), right now, way too many of them are highly productive relievers. Davis, Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Jeurys Familia, Joakim Soria, Adam Ottavino, Aroldis Chapman, Brad Boxberger, and Yimi Garcia are all rated among the top 25 pitchers. That's almost 40% of the top end.

The imbalance is inherent with the system. We want relievers to be appropriately rated at the end of the season, so we want a certain number of saves out of our relief pitchers. That brings guys like Familia and Soria to the top. Wins are one of the hardest stats to accumulate, so the guys who have lucked into a couple of wins early look (statistically) like dominant starting pitchers, albeit with limited innings.

While certain guys like Davis, Miller, Robertson, and Chapman have a history of dominance, none of them should be traded for as if they're a top 15-20 pitcher.

4. Remember when we all thought the A's were crazy for trading Josh Donaldson for Brett Lawrie?

We were right.

5. The Orioles and White Sox are going to play in front of absolutely nobody today.

There's not any sort of fantasy spin for this story, but it's insane. Baltimore is in such a state of disarray that the audience can't be trusted to collect in close quarters and not erupt into anarchy. I'm hopeful that things will turn for the better and soon, but in the meantime, best wishes to the Orioles and to all Baltimoreans.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Game of Thrones Quick Episode Discussion/Review - Season 5, Episode 3, "High Sparrow"

This time tomorrow, I'll either be relieved and planning out who's going to games 3 and 4 of the Caps/Rangers series, or I'll be a bowl of jelly and tears. In the meantime, Game of Thrones is a pleasant distraction.

MICHAEL I'LL WRITE AN ARTICLE FOR YOU LATER THIS WEEK.

It was nice to see Jorah Mormont back in the fray, even if it looks like he'll be playing the role of a quasi-villain in the near future.
I'm not sure if I mentioned earlier (and I'm not going to go look), but in the books we lose several months of Jorah, and he just appears later. I'm glad to see that we'll get some more substance using his character. Plus, it looks like he'll have a wholly new story to play out, which means it'll be brand spanking new to all viewers.

The beheading of Janos Slynt was brutal.
It was brutal in the book too, but it felt more necessary in the book. The approving look of Stannis afterward probably wasn't any comfort at all to Jon Snow, either. But to me (and feel free to disagree in the comments), it felt like an overreaction in its context. Jumping from insubordination to execution seems to skip a few steps of the punishment hierarchy.

Also, can I just say that being ordered to rebuild and take command of a castle is something that people in this world would dream to do? Winter's gonna be tough anywhere; winter being in charge might be slightly more fun.

Arya's storyline is still boring me.
To tears.

I'm digging the High Sparrow.
That's not to say that I'm "rooting" for the Sparrows; they seem like zealots, and I almost always find myself at odds with zealots. But after just one brief conversation with Cersei, I'm definitely interested in seeing how the character is played out in the show. He's got a powerful personality already, and his followers have already deposed the High Septon.

The progression of Sansa is enticing.
Not just because she's starting to look kind of hot, but because she's really the last Stark that the world knows about. She showed last season that she's more clever than we had realized when she came up with the half-story about Littlefinger and Lysa, and when Littlefinger encouraged her to avenge her family's deaths, Sansa definitely played up the look of a sinister mind at work.

Also, let me just say that when that old woman said, "The North remembers," I got my first ever murder boner. I'm a fan of comeuppance, as I know I've said before. There are other snippets from the books that I hope will fan the flames of vengeance, but just that hint was a good spark.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

2015 NHL Playoffs - First Round Part 2

The Capitals and Islanders have each won two games, which means each team is halfway to the second round. But they've both also lost two games, which means they're both half of the way to going home. That makes the next two (or three) games very exciting, matching the intensity level of so many of the other series in these playoffs.

Where exactly are the Caps?

It's hard to say what the Caps' situation is right now. They've won a pair of extremely close games, and lost a pair of games that weren't terribly close. There have been parts of each of these games when both teams have looked unstoppable. Sometimes the Isles seem to be inside the minds of the Capitals where they read every pass, and other times the Caps are three steps ahead of New York.

So my question is, where are the real Caps? When Washington is humming, they are able to use their size to their advantage and muscle themselves into favorable situations. And I'm not being a total homer when I say that, when Braden Holtby hasn't been sick, he's been sick. I'm hopeful that they'll be able to build upon their better play in games 2-4 and make the most of their home ice advantage (including myself, as I'll be attending game 5).

Rules? There're no rules here.

I remember watching the video of P.K. Subban slashing the hell out of Mark Stone, and thinking, "That's just completely illegal." He received a 5-minute major penalty as well as a game misconduct, sending him to the locker room. But it was pretty egregious, and I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd gotten another game suspension since it was so completely away from the play, and was clearly intentional.

Now we've got Calgary and Vancouver basically engaging in a WWF Royal Rumble (yes, WWF, the World Wrestling Federation; the WWE is an abomination). There haven't been any suspensions from their shenanigans either, despite the fact that a hundred guys could have been suspended.

Then was the worst play in the whole playoffs, when Dustin Byfuglien mashed Corey Perry right after Perry scored. That's a star player attacking another star player after the play was over, from behind. Utterly unacceptable. But the punishment? A two-minute minor for roughing.

Get the fuck out of here.

I'm a longtime advocate of attempts to reduce the number of fights in hockey. I've written about it before so I'll try not to repeat myself, but basically I don't like stopping a game to let people beat each other up because reasons. But the whole "value" of fighting that people keep saying is that fighting is a method of on-ice policing, to create repercussions for rough play.

You know, like when a guy slashes someone completely away from the play and breaks his hand. Or attacks your most prolific scorer after he scores. These are exactly the situations that demand justice, in one form or another. And the NHL had an opportunity here to lay down the law and prove that fighting isn't necessary to protect its star players and prevent aggressive, intentionally dangerous play. And they completely shit their pants and ran away.

I don't know how you don't suspend Byfuglien. It was a goon play, a dangerous play, and completely not what you want out of your premier event. I will never again presume to know what the NHL wants (though I will absolutely continue to declare what the NHL should want).

See you Thursday night, boys. Hope nobody gets killed.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Game of Thrones Quick Episode Discussion/Review - Season 5, Episode 2, "The House of Black and White"

Sunday was kind of a disappointing day overall. After the Capitals' lackluster showing against the Islanders on Sunday afternoon, I was hoping for some Game of Thrones magic. Unfortunately, we're still in the buildup phase of this season, so we didn't get too much in the way of big moments. But plenty worth talking about, so here are my new five discussion points.

1. The Arya storyline has gotten less interesting for me over time.
It's not that I don't think Arya is an interesting character. I think she's got some stuff going on that makes her unpredictable and deadly, and that's always interesting. I just don't care what happens for the next whatever amount of time it takes for her to get to where she's going. If they had her disappear for two seasons and then suddenly show up murdering people, I'd probably be fine with that.

2. I'm fine with the adjustment they made with regards to the choosing of the new Lord Commander.
In the books, it's a bit of clever politicking by Samwell Tarly that makes Jon Snow Lord Commander, but I liked this version just as much. A great speech with a perfect final sentence. Also it was funny to hear Sam put Janos Slynt in his place. He got served.

3. I don't understand Brienne.
Like, I just don't know why she acts the way she does. She seems directionless, and without logic. "Hey can I talk to you away from this one guy who clearly is keeping you safe and would be suspicious of us if we talked in private and then I joined you? No? What the hell, man?" Silly.

4. I think Bronn is as good as dead.
We need a good death or two to make the season have weight, and Bronn seems to not really have a purpose other than to be "another guy." Jamie is going to Dorne, where people want to kill Lannisters. By the way, nice to see my old friend Doctor Bashir getting some more acting gigs.

5. Kevan Lannister is like Tywin, without the subversion.
He seems a smart enough strategist, and is perceptive as to Cersei's machinations to make the Small Council serve her needs. He sees through everything she's doing, but where Tywin would impose his will on the proceedings, Kevan simply calls her out on her bullshit and says, "Stop bullshitting and I'll hang out." He actually could be good for Westeros, if he gets put into a position of power.

You might notice that conspicuously absent from my list are Daenerys, Tyrion, and anyone associated with them. Those storylines are in a rut right now, I think. The "return" of Drogon was a gimmick, but I guess people just like seeing dragons. But seriously, nothing happened there. I'm holding out hope for next week being a nice shot of adrenaline, though. We need a little speed to feed the beast.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The 2015 NHL Playoffs - Can the Caps Pull It Off?

As most of you know, I'm a big fan of the Washington Capitals. Now, I won't lie and say I grew up a hockey fan, because it's just not true. I didn't follow the Caps until they made the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, and I didn't really start to follow the Caps until they made the playoffs again for the first time under Bruce Boudreau. They went on a fantastic run to finish the season, then came back to win their playoff series against the Rangers with three straight wins.

Since then, I've been tuned in for hundreds of Capitals games, and have learned a great deal about the sport. I've also gotten a job working at an ice rink, which guarantees considerable exposure to hockey discussion, as well as actual, real-life hockey.

And this is the best Washington Capitals team I've ever seen.

Well, let me clarify. The President's Trophy winning team from 2009-2010 was an offensive juggernaut, and probably a more impressive team than this one. But I don't think there's been a team in Washington that has appeared more capable of bringing home a Stanley Cup since Alexander Ovechkin came to town. The Capitals this year have been a tough team to play against, and yet they've got as much skill as they ever have (apologies to Alex Semin fans). Evgeny Kuznetsov has really started to grow as a two-way player, and his development has freed up Barry Trotz to mix Backstrom into a now-potent second line. On top of that, the defensive additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have really solidified an already skilled back end, and allowed Mike Green to be deployed more responsibly.

Offense, defense, and Braden Holtby can go toe-to-toe with any goalie in the league in a playoff series (and has). I'm excited for these playoffs to begin.

So...predictions!

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blues have been circling around for a deep playoff run for a few years now. I've always been a huge fan of David Backes, and I think this might be the year they finally break through. Zach Parise is a fantastic two-way player for Minnesota, but I think the Blues are too strong top-to-bottom.

Prediction: Blues in 5

Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Definitely the most interesting first-round matchup out west for me, the Blackhawks are perhaps the most skilled team in hockey if Patrick Kane can come back healthy. Meanwhile, the Predators turned in one of their best seasons in history in their first season without Barry Trotz at the helm. I do think that Nashville is a great squad, but I'm expecting Kane to come back, and if he does, there's too much firepower on Chicago for the Preds to handle.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7

Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets

This is definitely an interesting pairing. Anaheim boasts three of the most disliked players west of the Mississippi in Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler, but part of that dislike comes from those guys being really, really good. Perry in particular is a game-changer. The Jets are one of the darlings of the playoffs this year, but I don't think people actually expect them to, you know, win games. Me neither.

Prediction: Ducks in 5

Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames

After Mark Giordano went down, I'll be honest, I didn't think the Flames stood a chance in hell of maintaining a playoff spot. They fought tooth and nail down to the wire, though, and managed to hold off the defending champion L.A. Kings in securing a playoff berth. They actually had the best point differential in the Pacific Division, which includes these same Canucks. I don't expect the Flames to go deep into the playoffs, but I think Vancouver is primed for being upset...that they lose!

Prediction: Flames in 7

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators

Montreal had a great season, and their reward is a first-round matchup with the hottest team in these playoffs. It's a fair bet that Andrew Hammond won't be able to keep up his near-perfect performance of the past month, but the Senators have nothing to lose here. They've been playing with renegade confidence, and Montreal's top scorer Max Pacioretty is day-to-day with a head injury. It's hockey, so Pacioretty will probably play, but will he be the same player? Tough to say. In the end, I'll favor the team with Carey Price, but this is going to be a scrap.

Prediction: Canadiens in 7

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

People are calling this the Yzerman series, but these Red Wings are a long way from the transcendent squads that Stevie Y used to captain. I believe that Pavel Datsyuk is one of the greatest players of this generation, but he's always dinged up. And the Lightning can roll out two really dangerous lines, one of which includes maybe the best individual scorer in hockey, Steven Stamkos. I expect this to be a well-played series with a ton of skill, but I feel like Tampa's got the edge.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

Now for the two big ones.

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

This has got to be the most appealing series for the casual sports fan who wants to tune in and see some hockey. You have the best player in the game in Sidney Crosby, maybe the best goalie in the game in Henrik Lundqvist, two storied franchises, and two passionate fan bases. The only problem is that Pittsburgh isn't very good right now. They haven't played a lick of defense since February, and their legitimate scoring threats are limited to their top two lines. It's possible that Marc-Andre Fleury will stand on his head and take a game, or two, or even the series, but the smart money is on the Rangers getting past this round with relative ease.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

I certainly wasn't pleased with the way the Capitals looked in their final game of the season, a 4-2 loss to the Rangers, but the liquid fire Columbus Blue Jackets did Washington a favor by beating the Isles in their final game as well, to give the Caps home-ice advantage for this series. The Isles are actually a decent matchup for the Caps; while they boast about the same skill level, they're still unproven when it comes to the playoffs, and their defensive corps is more built to score goals than to put the hammer down on opposing forwards. The Caps roll four solid lines, and Jaroslav Halak isn't an elite goaltender. The Capitals should be able to pull this one out.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

Monday, April 13, 2015

Game of Thrones Quick Episode Discussion/Review - Season 5, Episode 1, "The Wars to Come"

I've been pretty jazzed for this season of Game of Thrones, I think because I know a little of what may be coming, but mostly I'm back to not knowing, since a lot of the TV show has now outpaced the book. If you've been checking in here at all recently, you probably already knew that. You also knew that I like writing about things I enjoy. So, naturally, I'm going to take a crack at writing a quick post about each episode.

Now, other blogs will do step-by-step reviews/recaps of episodes. That's not what this blog is about. Really, what this blog is about is lists of five. So, I'm going to post five thoughts from each episode the morning after the episode. They won't be in any order necessarily, though I will number them just to make sure I get five each time.

1. Is Cersei just a complete ball of hate at this point?

Granted, listening to Loras Tyrell spout totally useless sympathies is enough to make anyone angry, but she basically spits on everyone she knows. Jamie, Lancel, Pycelle (obviously), and she visibly loathes all of the Tyrells getting comfortable in King's Landing. A ball of hate is an interesting character though, so I'm expecting good things out of the queen regent this season. I mean, not like D&D alignment "good" things, but entertaining things.

2. Stannis seems...happy?

I'm sure a large part of it is that he finally won a battle. After the massive defeat at Blackwater Bay, he had gotten sullen and angry, but after routing the wildling army, he seemed downright giddy by comparison. Or maybe he just liked the idea of threatening people. But he's basically grinning when he proposes the offer to Jon Snow of the wildlings joining his army. It's an odd look.


3. Daenerys is still kind of a bitch.

Look, I know you all love her, and clearly lots of people in the show think she's a great option to rule Westeros, but sometimes she can be a class A bitch. When she metaphorically slaps Hizdahr about being a queen and not a politician, his response is a perfect imitation of Sansa responding to Joffrey; that is, the way you respond to a powerful child when they're being stubborn: agree and move on. TV Daario is more likable than book Daario, which doesn't feel right, but at least somebody is putting Dany in her place...in more ways than one. Wink!

4. The Missandei/Grey Worm angle is getting tired...
...no, it's not getting tired. It's been tired for a while. At this point, it's excruciating.

5. Episode one is usually a window into what the season will be "about." So now we sort of know that.

There are pieces we haven't touched on yet; Arya will doubtless make an appearance, and we'll spend some time at Winterfell under new management. But we've got a lot of information at this point:
  • Daenerys will have more trouble ruling Meereen, and controlling her dragons.
  • Tyrion and Varys are on their way to visit Daenerys, and likely engage in a few dozen quip-battles on the way.
  • A new Lord Commander will be decided, and something has to be done with the tens of thousands of wildlings still at the wall.
  • Stannis aims to take Winterfell from the Boltons, presumably in the hopes of currying favor from the northerners still loyal to the Starks.
  • Littlefinger's up to something, and we probably won't know for a while.

I loved the final moment of the episode. Jon's act of mercy was gratifying, and holy shit, Ciaran Hinds is a fantastic actor.

Tune in later this week for my next post, which will have absolutely nothing to do with Game of Thrones.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Top 5 Game of Thrones Storylines Heading Into Season Five

When we left off, we'd actually resolved a fair number of questions. The war between the Starks and Lannisters has ended, the wildling army was routed, Tyrion had escaped execution, and Arya was on a boat to Braavos. So is there really anything left to look forward to?

Yes, obviously.

Here are my top five storylines going into the next season of Game of Thrones. Some of these I have an idea about because I've read the books, but with the changes that have been made recently, there are no guarantees. These are the five questions I've got going into the next season.

5. What happens when Arya actually arrives in Braavos?

I'm not like most people in that I don't love Arya's storyline. I liked The Hound, and I did love that moment when Arya murdered those Freys right after The Red Wedding. So I acknowledge that there's potential here for some fun times. Braavos is also a compelling place, from what we've heard so far, so I'm eager to see what the city has to offer.

4. What the hell is going on in the Iron Islands?

This question definitely derives more from the books than the show. It seems like the show has gone away from the Ironborn as a storyline, other than Theon/Reek out of necessity. But my feeling is that there's more going on here. I mean, remember that Balon Greyjoy was one of the names that Stannis gave the Red God when he did his little blood magic with Gendry. Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon are dead, and their deaths sent tidal waves through the kingdoms. Surely the third name has some value as well.

3. How does Dorne react to the death of Oberyn?

Oberyn became one of the most popular characters in the show during season 4, which obviously sealed his fate. But seriously, Oberyn was a "Prince" of Dorne, brother of Doran, and father to many dangerous daughters. Oberyn and Doran's sister Elia was murdered by Gregor Clegane, a Lannister bannerman. You may also remember that King Tommen's sister Myrcella was sent to Dorne back in season 2 and betrothed to Trystane Martell, son of Doran, adding another complication to the relationship between the throne and Dorne. All of this adds up to, Dorne has a lot of interconnected pieces with the Lannisters, and we've only seen Oberyn. All the talk is that we'll see a lot of Dorne this season; I'm looking forward to finding out what they have to say.

2. What will Jamie and Cersei do without Tywin pulling the strings?

This is a question I have some sense of an answer to, based on the book content, but that doesn't mean I know anything. Tywin had relative control over the queen, but she's been becoming more and more unspooled since Joffrey's death. Will Cersei go completely off the deep end now? Tyrion's escaped, her controlling father is dead, and her soft son sits upon the iron throne. And what about Jamie? He has to know that Tyrion killed their father (and Shae, but who cares). While Jamie clearly hated much about his father, I don't think he ever wanted him dead. Their reactions might be the best part of this first episode.

1. What's going to happen to Jorah Mormont?

I've always liked Jorah, both Mormonts actually. I (and I'm sure all guys) have a bit of experience with and can sympathize with unrequited love. We didn't see much deception at the beginning really; Jorah seemed perfectly devoted to Daenerys from the get-go, and it's possible that he truly was. He may have sought only to prevent Viserys or Khal Drogo from conquering Westeros, and once they had both died, and Dany was on her own, his loyalty was unfettered. Regardless, he's been cast out from Daenerys' city, and is going...where? We have no idea. Even in the books, Jorah simply disappears (for a while). This is one of those circumstances where a non-central character from the books is probably going to get some extra story. And if you're not sure if you like that, consider that large portions of Robb Stark's story, Varys' story, Baelish's story, and The Hound's story were all constructed for television. Plenty of good TV in there, and there's another opportunity for the same here.

Oh my god, tonight's the night. I wish I didn't have to work so I could watch it right away. Don't ruin anything, I'll watch it late tonight!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Top 5 Best Living Fighters In the Game of Thrones World

There's a conversation in season one between a couple of Lannister soldiers about who the best swordsman is in the seven kingdoms. Their top picks include "our man Jamie" and the Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane. But at this point in the story, Jamie's lost his sword hand, the Mountain's condition is unknown, the Hound is dead or near-death, and countless other killers have been killed: Khal Drogo, Ned Stark, Oberyn Martell was clearly well-trained and vicious, and Qhorin Halfhand must've killed his share of wildlings.

But that's the past. Who's left? Well, still plenty of bloodletters on the roster. Here are my picks for the top five fighters (in their current states) in the world of Game of Thrones at the close of season four.


5. Jon Snow - This will probably be the most questionable choice of mine, but here's my logic. Jon Snow is old enough to be plenty capable, even though we've known him from young adulthood. He was trained in Winterfell by presumably skilled warriors, and he's spent basically his whole life being angry about being a bastard. He's also been a brother of the Night's Watch, learned under Jeor Mormont, ranged north of The Wall, survived imprisonment by the wildlings, climbed The Wall, battled and escaped wildlings, and defended The Wall against impossible odds. He's a survivor; he's on my list.

4. Daario Naharis - I'm cheating a little bit here. There's a character from the books named Strong Belwas who's been sort of incorporated into Daario's character, and so I've combined them into a single "show character" in my mind, and Strong Belwas is a badass. But Daario is as well; remember he killed two other killers in his camp and brought their heads before Dany, no small task. His one-shot kill of the champion outside Meereen also displayed his prowess and speed. We haven't really seen much of him in combat, but he, Grey Worm, and Jorah basically took down Yunkai on their own. That's not nothing.

3. Brienne of Tarth - Brienne is far from being the most skilled swordsman(/woman) in the realm, but her size is something she puts to use quite well. When matched one-on-one, she smashed Loras Tyrell (which coincidentally pushed him off of this list) and she bested the Hound. I think the very best fighters would be able to counter her size, but most people can't, and she makes them pay.

2. Tormund Giantsbane - It's tough to judge Tormund against the best fighters in the world, but he certainly had no trouble annihilating the men of the Night's Watch. He's powerful, experienced, and ruthless. He also seems single-minded to the point of madness, where once he decided he was fighting someone, he'd fight them until they were very, very dead.

1. Bronn, son of..."you wouldn't know him." - In the books, Bronn is a skilled fighter who could stand toe-to-toe with most opponents. In the show, Bronn kills whole columns of troops at every turn. He's a cold-blooded killer, and he's got no qualms about getting dirty to win a fight. That plus the fact that he seems as fast and skilled a swordsman as anybody puts him at the top of my list. The scene where he and The Hound are at each other's throats right before the battle of Blackwater Bay had me worried one would get killed, but would've been maybe the best fight of the show. Hopefully we get some more good ones this season.

Tomorrow's the big day! Get hyped!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Top 5 Game of Thrones Characters I Hope We Get Back In Season 5

Game of Thrones has an insane number of characters. The story traverses two continents and countless cities (alright you could count them, but why). Dozens of characters come and go every episode, and as I've mentioned, plenty of them find their ends in the story.

But some of them don't. Some of them have just disappeared. We might hear about them here or there, and we might not. I've learned, from the reappearance of guys like Barristan Selmy, Janos Slynt, and Littlefinger, that there are no guarantees when a character slips out of sight. So here are five characters who didn't make an appearance in season 4, and who I'd like to see more of.

Note: I have no information about whether or not anyone listed below will return at all in the show, ever. I imagine two of them will (#3 and #1), but the others are smaller characters that aren't at all necessary to finish the telling of the great story. Anyways, I just wanted to express that despite having read the books, I don't really know much more than a non-reader would.

5. Syrio Forel - You'll remember Syrio was Arya Stark's "dancing master" from season one. He had a funny way of speaking that I enjoyed, and he proved his ability with a sword when we saw him disable several Lannister guards with a training sword. His fate was left unresolved, though Arya believes him to be dead, as she relayed as such to the Hound last season. And it may be that the writers had hoped to resolve his fate through that conversation. But I'm holding out hope that we'll see him again someday.


4. Gendry - One of Robert Baratheon's many bastard sons, Gendry was likable from the start. He had a quick wit and a good heart. He was a lowborn orphan who seemed to not let it bother him, and it's no surprise that he and Davos hit it off. When last we saw him, he was rowing himself back to King's Landing. It might be that that's the end of his story, but with the Baratheon bloodline still of importance, I think it's possible we'll get to see him again.

3. Rickon Stark - Rickon doesn't really have a "story" going on; he's simply the youngest of the Stark children. At the end of season 3, he and Osha split off from their party and were heading towards the Last Hearth, home of the Umbers. If you can't place them, the lord of the Umbers was the Greatjon, the guy who threatened Robb Stark and got his fingers bitten off, then became one of his most loyal subjects. We didn't get a final note on whether he was at the Red Wedding, so it's possible he's out there as well. But Rickon is the last male Stark south of The Wall, so while the character isn't terribly interesting, his return to Game of Thrones would throw another spin into the world.


2. The Brotherhood Without Banners (Thoros of Myr, Beric Dondarrion, Anguy) - I decided to lump all these guys together, even though I like them all for different reasons. They're all part of the Brotherhood Without Banners, and they're all entertaining. Anguy was cocky and funny, Thoros was drunk and roguish, and Beric was, you know, Jesus. They're also a fairly large group of skilled fighters defying the region's legal authority. Plus, in the event that we see them return, we'll also likely get a little somebody from the books, who every book-reader knows and desperately wants to show her face.

1. Walder Frey - Walder Frey was just perfect. From the moment we met him in season one, he was the kind of guy who puts your hair on edge. He's creepy, he's old, and he just has a way of talking that makes you know he's up to no good. I didn't think he had the Red Wedding in him, but if there was anyone in the show who could, he's on that list. I enjoyed the little debriefing he had with Roose Bolton, but we haven't seen him since. Granted, I only want to see him come back so that he can get his comeuppance, but I really, really want to see that.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Top 5 Non-Death Moments in Game of Thrones

Obviously, spoiler alert.

As I mentioned in my previous article, Game of Thrones really feels like it's all about death, but that's not exactly true. There are plenty of instances where a character has a particularly memorable moment in which they don't check out. Granted, there may be deaths associated with the event, but it's Game of Thrones; someone's always dying.

So here are my top five non-death moments in Game of Thrones.


5. Stannis Rides Down the Wildling Army - This could have been higher, should have been higher. But it occurred right at the beginning of the final episode of season 4, so it had no time to build. In the books, this was one of the most incredible scenes because of its total surprise factor. There was still a surprise in the show, but as I said, the scene itself needed a few minutes to ruminate, in my book. Still, cavalry always makes for great television.
 
4. The Hound Saves Sansa - This is a little bit of a cheat because there are definitely deaths in the scene. But the scene isn't about the deaths; it's about Sansa being moments away from rape, murder, and who knows what else, and Sandor Clegane showing his true colors and saving the day. We'd had a few hints at the "goodness" eating away at him, like when he defends Loras Tyrell at the tournament in season 1. But this was white knight, damsel in distress stuff. Very interesting, very telling.

3. Jamie Pushes Bran Out a Window - This might not be quite so high on my list had it not taken place as the cliffhanger of the very first episode. But it was the perfect act to set the tone for the show; Lannisters don't give a damn about Starks, even though they're lords. Jamie has no concern for (attempted) murder. And, naturally, the bastard-born children of Jamie and Cersei are what drives much of the story in Westeros. A big, early moment in the show.

2. Beric Dondarrion Dies...and Then Doesn't - The Hound and Thoros of Myr are two of my favorite characters in the show (Thoros is less interesting in the books). This scene is surrounded by a bunch of conversation involving those two, so it's a recipe for success. But the resurrection (or at least delayed death) of Beric Dondarrion is compelling stuff. It's the first time we see some "magic" type stuff outside of Melisandre, and it gives you the sense that there's a lot at work in this world. Also, flaming sword, trial by combat, epic quotes, it's all there. Great stuff.

1. Jamie Loses His Hand - One of the landmark moments of the series is when the made-for-TV character Locke chops off Jamie Lannister's sword hand. It's not quite the game-changer that Eddard Stark's death is, but it's right up there. Jamie is a completely different character after he loses his hand; he's utterly defeated. Even as he returns to King's Landing, everything's changed for him. The loss of his hand, and the transformation of him into an unexceptional fighter, forces him to forge a new identity.

In putting together this list, I realized the deaths are just way more heavy. Yeah these are good spots, but because there's so much death in the show, death of important characters, these non-death moments are just basically the background events, the build-ups. Still, they're good scenes.

Did I forget one? Almost certainly I did. Say what you liked best in the comments!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Five Top 5's for Game of Thrones - Season Five (SPOILERS)

I really enjoy Game of Thrones. I love the novels, and the HBO series has done a pretty good job of capturing a lot of the great moments from the books. I've rewatched the first season a dozen times, and seasons 2-4 a few times each. I still grin watching The Hound protect Loras Tyrell from The Mountain, I still hate Joffrey Baratheon with every fiber of my being, and I still get chills watching the Red Wedding.

So with Game of Thrones coming back next week, I've got Game on the brain. Luckily for you, my adoring fans, that means a lot of articles this week. I'll be posting a different Top 5 each day between now and Sunday, the day of the Season 5 premiere. That makes for five different Top 5 lists. These lists will be in regard to the television series, though I may give some hints about book content here or there. I invite you to come along for the ride, and post your own Top 5s in the comments!

First...

Top 5 Deaths (So Far) In Game of Thrones

From the beginning, Game of Thrones has been a show about death. The seven kingdoms thrown into war, deception and murder at every turn, it's a story about ends and beginnings. And after episode nine of the first season, anybody who watches the show realized that no one is safe. The deaths bring life to the show (and to the books), so we'll start this set of Top 5 lists with the top five deaths from the TV series.


5. Ghost Stannis Kills Renly - This killing wasn't as surprising or gruesome or emotional as many of the others, but it gets bonus points for the gravity of how things changed in Westeros because of it. Renly Baratheon's death occurred just moments after he had solidified a peace with the Starks that (without dark powers at work) would've made this a two season show. But when Renly is murdered, the Starks are suddenly on their own again, Stannis' power is solidified, and the Tyrells become allies of convenience with the Lannisters. As I said, not an exceptional death scene, but an important one in the lore of the lands.

4. The "Deaths" of Bran and Rickon Stark - As if we needed further reminder of how brutal a medieval, feudal world could be. While I think most people with any sense could tell that something was amiss on television, you can see how the people of Winterfell would believe that their liege lords had been slain and burned alive. This also started Bran's trip north of The Wall, which while not terribly entertaining, has definitely been a big part of the story, and figures to be even more so going forward.

3. Ned Stark Loses His Head - I kind of wish I'd gotten on board Game of Thrones right away, so I could've seen Baelor in real-time. I feel like the moment when you realize there's nothing that's going to save this character, this man who you thought would endure the series, that's why the show is such a phenomenon (see #1). It also was telling that the character who was most stubbornly moral was unable to survive the first season of the show. The talk is all about White Walkers and "Taking The Black," but in Westeros, only gray survives.

2. The Execution of Lady - It says something about humans that we all feel more sympathy and sadness for a cute wolf than we do for a human being, but it's utterly true. I think maybe we see all the flaws of humans, whereas animals seem innocent, like children. This death also introduced us to the cruelty of Queen Cersei, which endures to this day. Every time I re-watch the episode, I cringe when Ned is forced to put down Lady, and I'm reminded of how despite her random moments of kindness, Cersei is a miserable bitch.

1. The Red Wedding - I would've liked to have found a way to not be so predictable as to put this at number one, but anything else would've been insincere. The truth is, there were no deaths I was as unprepared for as Robb and Catelyn Starks'. It was before I had read any of the books, and I hadn't even really thought about the mechanics of a season (generally, episode 9 is the one with the greatest surprises/events). So I went into the episode without any idea of what was coming, and it was brilliant. I mean it was terrible, shocking, brutal, even more brutal than the original story. But if we consume art to experience emotions, the Red Wedding is one of our generation's greatest works.

That's my top five. Do you disagree? Leave a comment in the...well, in the comments!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Living In the World of Warcraft

I've been debating for months about possibly getting back into World of Warcraft. There's a lot I like about the game:

I get a kick out of some of the quests in the game, and they're definitely a bit better than they used to be. Granted, plenty of them are still "Kill 8 boars," or "Gather five boxes," but there are others these days, especially into Outland and beyond, that have a bit more depth to them. And I enjoy unlocking new skills and shaping my character to be my own.

I enjoy taking on the instanced dungeons in the early, from Wailing Caverns to Shadowfang Keep to the Scarlet Monastery. And it's a fair bet that once I get to some of the later ones, I'll enjoy them as well. I also like how some of them have changed; SFK is much more interesting with the Worgen layer on top.

I like the organic economy that ebbs and flows in the game, and I like finding ways to exploit it to generate funds, which I happily use to further exploit market inequalities, or to buy things I want like gear or recipes.

I like collecting resources, and sharing them between my characters to really craft the shit out of the game. I haven't managed to get multiple characters to high enough levels to make a huge difference, but I've definitely put together armor, weapons, and potions for my guys to share.

So now that I've got a full-time job, what's been stopping me? Well, the thing about me, and it's different about me versus a lot of other users, but...

...I love the grind.

I feel like it's the grind that makes you feel like part of the world. The quests may not be amazingly crafted as far as lore, but they add little pieces of what's going on in the zone to your experience. Lots of stuff like this helps to explain why you might want to delve into a particular dungeon, like the quilboars being general assholes in the south Barrens, and how conquering RFK and RFD are your ways to strike back.


The grind also makes me feel like I own my character a little bit more. You used to have only certain weapon proficiencies when you started your character, based on your class and race. If you wanted to learn how to use other weapons that your class could use, you had to seek out weapons trainers and pay them a fair sum in order to learn how to use that weapon type. And you leveled up your use of that weapon just like any other skill, so your first few swings with a new weapon would be ineffective.

Was that "fun" for most people? Probably not. But it added a reason to search around the various capital cities, which made you learn more about them, which made you feel like more a part of the world you were living in. Now, you know all proficiencies just by creating a character. You also don't need an actual "fishing pole" to go fishing; once you've got the skill, you apparently have a phantom fishing pole that sprouts as needed. Which I guess whatever, but I liked that you had to commit a backpack slot to a fishing pole if you wanted to fish. Again, character choices.

In the end, because of the aspects I mentioned above that I enjoy, I'll probably still get back into the game (if I haven't already by the time this gets posted). But I think when people complain about the grind, it'd be important to remind them that the grind is there for a reason. When people complain about having to carry a mining pick around to mine ore, remember, it's there for a reason.

Immersion is a tough thing to achieve; I don't think we should so easily dismiss it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Top 5 Short-Run Characters On The Walking Dead - (SPOILERS)

Seriously, again, spoilers. You have been warned.


This past Sunday was the season finale of The Walking Dead, and while we didn't lose any big-name characters as we have in some of the other finales (Andrea, The Governor, etc), it was definitely momentous. Perhaps most notably, the finale saw the possible addition to the regular cast of Morgan, played by Lennie James. Granted, they may kill him off early next season, but the fact that he's been in three episodes in three different seasons tells me he's at least going to get a fair shake this time, kind of like when Merle popped up again.

But it got me thinking, who are the folks who really nailed it despite having only a brief stay on The Walking Dead? With the show's mortality rate pretty damn high, it's hard to get too attached to anyone in a short-term engagement, but a few have gotten it done. Here are my Top 5 Walking Dead characters who appeared in four or fewer episodes (and were dead at the end of their last episode):
  1. Michael Zegen as Randall Culver - Randall, you may remember, was the catalyst for the whole Rick vs. Shane final showdown. His imprisonment and the debate about what to do with him created all sorts of heated moments, and it could be argued that it precipitated Dale's demise. But my favorite thing about him is that we really don't know what kind of person he was. He claimed to be part of a group just trying to make it in this new world, and we don't have evidence that he was lying. We just know our group was scared of them. I hope we never get anything concrete about it, too. I love that it's just unknown.
  2. Noah Emmerich as Dr. Edwin Jenner - I like Noah Emmerich as an actor, and he was well-suited to this role. Even-keeled, forceful, a little cold. He also served two great purposes in the show. First, he (and VAL) ushered in the destruction of the CDC, which showed just how hopeless the situation had become. Second, he gave Rick the bombshell that everyone was infected. I think we all thought that he was whispering about Lori's pregnancy, but it turns out, something that comic readers knew early on was dropped on TV watchers through Jenner. Super useful character.
  3. Chris Coy as Martin - Martin was one of the best villains in the show, even though he wasn't some grand schemer like the Governor, or a cannibal like the folks at Terminus. The great value of Martin was that he was that little voice inside of a good person (specifically Tyreese), that nagging feeling that you should just give in and kill. And the voice says that if you don't, you're gonna die.
  4. Jeff Kober as Joe - The Claimers were an interesting band. They were brutal, but you got a sense that with a few different turns of events, they could've been good folks. They had the capacity for killing, but if you don't have that in this world, you usually don't make it. The Claimers brought in Daryl right after he'd lost Beth, and immediately Joe became an interesting, even somewhat likable character. Of course, that changed when he chose to let one of his guys try to rape Carl, but hey, that resulted in one of the best kills in the show.
  5. Pruitt Taylor Vince as Otis - Otis wasn't necessarily exceptional in the scope of the story, but he was vital. He accidentally shot Carl, which precipitated most of the events of season 2. He seemed like a good guy, and in truth, Shane did everything he could to try to keep Otis alive. Shane's behavior made it seem sinister, and perhaps it was, but with how many people we've seen die in this show, are we still willing to say it was "murder?" Anyways, Otis' time on the show created a lot of debatable points, so he makes the list.





Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Top 5 Movie Monsters

I find that some of my favorite movies are the really great monster movies. In general I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre, but there's something about a meticulously constructed, high-budget, well-written monster movie that makes me smile. I grew up watching and enjoying the Star Wars movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad, so I've grown to have an appreciation for aliens, bizarre creatures, and the unknown.

I like coming up with Top 5s, but I always have trouble ranking them after I come up with them. I toyed with the idea of going the High Fidelity route, where you name a Top 5, but there's no order.
  1. Tyrannosaurus Rex - There's no beast in movies that makes me as excited as the T-Rex. While dinosaurs from subsequent Jurassic Park movies were plenty frightening, the Tyrannosaurus was always the dinosaur growing up. And even though I've read articles that suggest that its roars are almost certainly a figment of Hollywood's imagination, the roar from Jurassic Park is what movie monsters are all about. He's truly the king of the monsters.
  2. Jaws - Jaws is one of my favorite movies, despite the fact that seeing it makes me never want to go in the ocean again. The actual shark is perfectly created in the movie. It's not a "villain" per se, though obviously the body count makes you see it as such. The truth is that Jaws is simply a force of nature, which makes it delightfully unpredictable and unforgiving.
  3. Alien - Growing up, I was always more of a Predator fan than an Alien fan. And if I ever see any of the Alien vs. Predator movies, I imagine I'll still root for Predator. And maybe that's further evidence of how Aliens are such a perfect monster. They can be silent, but they're massive and powerful and ruthless. I didn't actually watch Alien or Aliens until I was 30 years old, but even at that age, I could appreciate the elegant terror of the Alien.
  4. King Kong - The giant ape is one of the original movie monsters, maybe the original. I've caught parts of the original version, but the truth is it's very difficult to buy in to those older films with their technologically inferior effects. The newer one, while excruciatingly long, had high-level effects that helped to convey the awesome size and power of Kong. My favorite scene (naturally) was when he battled the Tyrannosaurs.
  5. Velociraptor - While the general public is aware of plenty of different dinosaurs, the velociraptor was one that Jurassic Park brought to the forefront of American culture. An expansion NBA team was even named the Toronto Raptors. While the actual science of the raptor is decidedly less frightening (new information says they had feathers, and the movie versions were more modeled after the larger deinonychus than velociraptor), the movie version is plenty scary. The one thing I'd say is a little less appealing for me personally is that the movies made raptors out to be as smart as humans; I want my monsters illogical and uncontrollable. Still, terrifying.

The Predator was an awesome creature, but it was humanoid and relied on technology, and generally doesn't strike me as a "monster" any more than do Klingons or Hutts. I liked the variety of monsters in The Mist, but we didn't really get to live with any of them individually, and they were all pretty different (tentacles, mantises, weird bat things, etc). I generally prefer individual monsters over groups, so things like zombies (Zombieland), infected humans (28 Days Later), and giant spiders (Eight-Legged Freaks) don't make my list. I liked the Rancor and the Sarlacc, but they weren't relevant enough to the story of Star Wars to really warrant inclusion.

Top 500 Songs - Dave Matthews Band

This was always going to be the hardest of my band lists, because I like so many of DMB's songs, and have liked them so differently over...