Game of Unknowns or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Game of Thrones On a Remedial Level

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The following essay almost certainly contains spoilers for the Season 7 finale of Game of Thrones. Unless I got all the details wrong.

Game of Thrones is a show with thousands of castmembers, hundreds of whom have speaking parts. There are seven kingdoms, each with complex and thorough backstories and lineages. There are mystical creatures and witches and knights; zombies and dragons and giants. Some of the characters have multiple nicknames, for example: Daenerys Targaryen, who is known at various times as Dany, Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons, The Silver Queen, Dragonmother, and Daenyerys Stormborn. There’s a group of warriors—the Dothraki—who even speak their own language. And the characters all have tongue-twisty names like Aegon Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon and Jaqen H’ghar.

As far as I can tell, there are three basic types of Game of Thrones viewers. There are the people who read the books, who follow the show with Talmudic attention to detail, who know arcane facts about dragonglass and direwolves and Valyrian steel, who could easily draw you a map of the Seven Kingdoms, and who can recite, by heart, the names, character traits, battles won and lost, and love affairs of multiple generations of Westeros’ seven major families.

Then there are those who never read the books but watch the show with similar closeness, who tune in to Game of Thrones podcasts and after-shows and who spend time on Reddit threads and various other message boards to dissect and analyze and obsess over each show. For these people, no detail is too minute, no character too minor, no snippet of dialogue spoken too passingly.

And then there are various degrees of folks like me, although I confess I’m a particularly hopeless case. I watch the show the way a small child watches one of those cartoons that contain lots of inside jokes for parents—easily half, if not more, of the plot goes over my head. I’d say that I’m playing checkers while the rest of y’all are playing chess, except checkers might be too sophisticated a game for my level of comprehension. Frankly, Tic-Tac-Toe might be a better analogy.

Take a few recent examples: A couple of episodes back, the scheming Littlefinger planted a letter, once written by Lady Sansa, in a place where her assassin kid sister Arya would surely find it. That particular show ended with Arya reading the letter. My first thought: What a cliffhanger! What could possibly be in that letter? Meanwhile, readers of the books and close watchers of the show already knew what was in that letter: It was the letter evil queen Cersei had demanded Sansa write, forcing her to pledging fealty to the Lannisters and blaming her father Ned Stark for his own death. Oh yeah, I thought, when I was reminded of all this on Twitter, that letter.

Another, perhaps even more embarrassing example: Recently, a group of seven of warriors went in pursue of the White Walkers or “wights” (honestly, I think White Walkers and “wights” are the same thing, but this could be another one of my gaps). All of Twitter was abuzz with talk of the “Magnificent Seven” and the “Dream Team.” But of the seven, I only knew four really well and the fifth guy I was a little sketchy on: There was Jon Snow (major character! Him I know!), Tormund (whom I call the “curiously hot ginger Wilding guy who was also in Force Majeure”), the knight Jorah (aka Dany’s bitch), the Hound (he’s kind of hard to miss), and Gendry, the one I was a bit sketchy on (I have some dim recollection of him being Robert Baratheon’s bastard son and also being seduced/tortured by the witch Melisandre, unless that was actually his lookalike, the kindly squire Podrick, who I think has an enormous shlong). It’s the two other guys I want to talk about because this is what really separates the chess players from us tic-tac-toe players. I had no idea who they were. Eventually, it became clear to me that one was a drunken preacher with the power to raise the dead and the other was a guy I vaguely remember he resurrected a bunch of times? Maybe in a cave? But I couldn’t recall how or why, or what either character’s connection to the larger plot was. And more to the point, I didn’t care.

Upon hearing this, serious Game of Thrones fans would no doubt be shocked or appalled—or both. But honestly, you have no idea how much fun it is to watch this show on a surface level. You still get lots of great acting and unchecked debauchery and awesome battles. There are still zombies and dragons. And you have a pretty solid understanding of the major characters and their motivations in any given scene. Every once in a while, you’re completely lost, but at that point you either tune out until the next scene, accept the fact that you have the comprehension of a small, helpless child, or, if you’re feeling particularly need-to-know-y, use Twitter or Google for additional insight.

Which brings me to this season. Much as I’ve loved Game of Thrones, I’ve always found it frustrating that most of the major characters are rarely in the same geographical region as each other, let alone the same room. This year, partly because the show is on an accelerated timeline (it’s ending next season) and partly because it has finally whizzed past George R.R. Martin’s painstakingly mapped out books, all that has changed. There have been reunions galore—Sansa and Jon, Sansa and Arya, Arya and the she-knight Brienne of Tarth, Bran and his sisters, all the dueling (and shagging) Lannisters, and so on. And characters we’ve long wanted to meet—hello, Dany and Jon!—have finally met and proceeded to get it on (all while buzzkill Bran calmly informed us that Dany is, in fact, Jon’s aunt). It’s been extremely satisfying. Some have complained that this is all akin to fan fiction, but it turns out I’m okay with expensively mounted fan fiction, as long as the acting is still great, the dialogue still clever, the stakes, both personal and political, still high, and the special effects still extraordinary.

What’s more, there have been grumblings on Twitter and elsewhere that the show has thrown away its sense of time and place in service of plot. Characters do seem to get from one part of Westeros to the other in record speed—I’m still not sure how Gendry ran all the way to Dragonstone, for example. Other reveals—the fact that Sansa and Arya weren’t really at each other’s throats, but were secretly conspiring against Littlefinger, for example; or a fake out involving Euron Greyjoy pretending to leave King’s Landing—seem less about logic than about creating awesome drama. Again I say—bring it on! With a few exceptions, this is the first season of Game of Thrones that I’ve been able to largely comprehend. Plus—zomg!— zombies vs dragons! Crumbling walls! Undead polar bears! Dragons that are zombies! After seven seasons, they’ve made Game of Throne for Idiots and this idiot, for one, couldn’t be happier.

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Paint it Black: Thoughts on The Sopranos finale

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Thanks to actual godsend website web.archive.org, I was able to find this long lost post I had written on The Sopranos finale. I still feel this way.

The following contains boatloads of spoilers about the final episode and, for that matter, the entire Sopranos series. Like, duh.

Let’s put aside, if humanly possible, the maddening ending, the cut to black that had everyone checking their TiVo connections and satellite dishes and, finally, taking David Chase’s name in vain.
Let’s talk about the rest of the episode.
I thought it was a damn good finale, with as much humor, pathos, and, insight that true fans of The Sopranos could possibly expect.

Phil was whacked—and then, in a posthumously heroic gesture, saved his grandchildren from a dangerous fate in a runaway car by stopping them with his fabulous head of hair and (crushed) skull.
AJ was still depressed and wanted to go to Afghanistan, or maybe work for Donald Trump. And then he got a new M3, a job as a D-boy on a slasher film, and a hot girlfriend. Bye-bye depression.
Tony had an affectionate visit with Janice—they joked about blowjobs under the bridge and how nobody understands their warped, Sopranos sense of humor.
Tony went to see Junior and realized that any lingering resentment was poorly spent—he was a toothless old man, who didn’t even remember that he once ran his own crew.
Meadow was going to become a lawyer to defend other hard-working, law-abiding Italian-Americans like her dear old dad.
Carmela still had her spec houses and her impenetrable shield of denial.
Paulie Walnuts was going to take over Vito’s construction job and maybe wasn’t in cahoots with New York, after all.
All in all, a lot went down.

You see, real fans of the show know this: David Chase never gives us juicy finales. The major action usually takes place in the penultimate episode, or before. That’s when Pussy got whacked. It’s when Janice killed Richie Aprille. It’s when Ralph Cifaretto had his head lopped off; it’s when Jackie Jr. went to the big strip joint in the sky.
The final episodes are usually about averting danger; they almost always ended with the family together somehow—at a funeral, in their living room, at Artie Buco’s restaurant—bent but not broken.
And surely, no one can argue that tons of shit went down in this season’s penultimate episode: What, Bobby getting killed, Silvio clinging to life, and Tony on the run, sleeping on a tiny bed, cradling a giant AK-47 weren’t enough for you?

I even went on the radio here in Baltimore and predicted that nothing would really happen in the final episode, that there’d be no closure, just more ambiguity. I knew it in my head to be true.

And yet. . . damn that David Chase, even before the show started—fed by the hype, the largeness of the moment, and yes, a giant tray of baked ziti—I began to waver.

One of my friends at the finale party I attended ran a theory past me: Janice would whack Tony! It was perfect. Wasn’t this show all about Tony and his mother? Would Janice, blaming Tony for Bobby’s death, finish the job that Livia was never quite able to do?
Hmmmm.

And then, that first scene where Tony meets with FBI agent Harris suddenly I’m thinking: Whoa. He’s going to turn state’s evidence and go into the Witness Protection Program. It’s really happening!
But no.

And then, the scene where Tony goes to visit Janice at the beach house. This is it, this is the scene where she’s going to get Medieval on his ass!
But no.

And then, the scene where Paulie Walnuts is alone in the Bada Bing! He’s going to get it; it’s quiet in there—too quiet. Run, Paulie, run!
But no.

And then, the scene where AJ and his girlfriend are alone in the car listening to Dylan. They’re going to die in fiery blaze!
But no.

I go back to what I said earlier in this blog: I was a non-believer. A Sopranos atheist. I didn’t think anything big was going to go down in the finale.
And yet, even I got snookered.
As the family gathered, as Journey’s ridiculous (and perfect) Don’t Stop Believing wailed on the diner juke box, as one suspicious looking character after the next filed in, as the creepy guy with the American flag hat went ominously into the bathroom (just like Michael Corleone!), as Tony ordered onion rings for the table, as Meadow could. . .not. . . park. . . her. . . car—I felt sick. I couldn’t sit still. It was really going to happen. Something horrible. Something huge!

But no.

Black out. The Sopranos is dead.
All over but for the theories:

“When you die, it just goes black,” fans remembered Tony told Bobby at the beach house. (I of course, had forgotten that line, but I’ve never been one of those Talmudic readers of the show.)
So the screen going black symbolizes the death of Tony.
A nifty theory, one that would make more sense if the entire Sopranos had been from Tony’s POV. It wasn’t. Yes, he was our protagonist. But there was plenty to the world of The Sopranos that existed without him. So I don’t buy it.

Then, if I may borrow a phrase, there’s the three gunmen theory: In this theory, the diner was filled with assasins. The creepy guy with the American flag hat was Phil Leotardo’s nephew. The young African-American men were hitmen who’d offed Bobby. A third suspicious character was the brother of someone that Christopher had whacked. Really?
But David Chase has responded to that theory and said, unequivocally: not so much.

The third theory: That David Chase left it ambiguous because he’s greedy and wants to make a movie. You know what? As cynical as I am, I don’t buy that.
I think the open-ended ending was very consistent with the ethos of the show. Chase simply stuck to his guns (so to speak), didn’t pander, did what felt true to the spirit of the series.

So what are we left with? Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Life.
What? You were expecting closure?
Fugghetaboutit.

Does It Bother You?

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AS ALWAYS, ALL OPINIONS IN THIS BLOG ARE MINE ALONE.

Let’s just say you’re a person who believes in all of Trump’s policies—America First, the travel ban, the Wall, the draining of the swamp—the whole bit. Let’s just say you think the Russia probe is totally bogus, it’s just the lamestream media attacking a man they hate. Let’s just say you even think Putin has been mischaracterized by the press—that he’s a strong leader, a man’s man, and a clear ally of the United States.

Let’s just say all of that is true. I still have a few questions for you:

•Does it bother you that…instead of draining the swamp, Trump has filled his administration with ex Goldman Sachs employees?

•Does it bother you that… he has spent nearly 20% of his presidency on the golf course?

•Does it bother you that…he admitted that he has no intention of reading or even comprehending a Healthcare Bill that will account for 20% of the U.S. economy and affect millions of lives—he just wants to sign something?

•Does it bother you that…he forced his cabinet members to lavish him with praise before that one cringe-inducing meeting?

•Does it bother you that…similarly, his new communication director, in his first press conference, boasted that the president swishes foul shots, throws a “dead spiral” through a tire, and sinks 30 foot putts? (Seriously, isn’t that some Kim Jong Un shit?)

•(Speaking of which) Does it bother you that he…called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “pretty smart cookie”?

•Does it bother you that…he hasn’t built the wall, not even close, and that last we heard, he admitted that Mexico probably wasn’t going to pay for it after all?

•Does it bother you that…he allowed Russian-state television into the Oval office but no American TV?

•Does it bother you that…at that same meeting, he divulged top secret intelligence to Russian diplomats in the Oval office?

•Does it bother you that…he lied about the crowd size at his inauguration?

•Does it bother you that…he put his neophyte son-in-law in charge of “Middle East Peace?”

•Does it bother you that… he put that same neophyte son-in-law in charge of the “Office of American Innovation”?

•Does it bother you that…he said “With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office”? (What the hell does that even mean?)

•Does it bother you that…he’s publicly harassing his Attorney General in the hopes he’ll quit?

•Does it bother you that….he didn’t seem to know who Frederick Douglass was?

•Does it bother you that…his new communications director threatened to sue his chief of staff on Twitter?

•Does it bother you that…he lamely tagged along world leaders during the G12 summit in a golf cart?

•Does it bother you that…German magazine Der Spiegel said that “Trump has turned the United States into a laughing stock”?

•Does it bother you that…Nordic prime ministers mocked his infamous orb photo?

•Does it bother you that…he took that weird orb photo to begin with? (What was up with THAT?)

•Does it bother you that…he engages in petty Twitter fights TV personalities like MSNBC’s Joe and Mika?

•Does it bother you that…his intelligence briefings have been dumbed down, because of his notoriously short attention span?

•Does it bother you that…NATO speeches had to be limited to four minutes or fewer, for the same reason?

•Does it bother you that…he tweets all the damn time from his private account?

•Does it bother you that…he seems to get most, if not all, of his news from Fox & Friends?

•Does it bother you that…he accused the former president of bugging his office, with zero proof?

•Does it bother you that…he seems to have replaced The National Anthem with the Make American Great Again anthem? (That doesn’t feel a little Stalin-y to you?)

•Does it bother you that…188 days into his presidency, he STILL boasts about his general election victory?

•Does it bother you that…188 days into his presidency, he still conducts campaign rallies?

•Does it bother you…people in his administration keep quitting, recusing themselves, or getting fired?

•Does it bother you that…while in front of thousands of Boy Scouts, he told a bizarre and nonsensical anecdote about a debauched billionaire’s yacht?

•Does it bother you that…his speech was so inappropriate the Boy Scouts had to apologize for it?

•Does it bother you that…HE STILL HASN’T SHARED HIS TAX RETURNS?

 

Seriously, folks, does any of this bother you? Not even a little?

 

 

It Follows: Some Thoughts on the “Bernie Would’ve Won” Brigade

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After Labour Party candidate Jeremy Corbyn had a surprisingly good showing in Thursday’s election, I braced myself for the inevitable and it came: The Bernie Would’ve Won coalition, out in full voice. They’ve been everywhere since the election: in tweets, in memes, even in this one very creepy music video. They WON’T GO AWAY. And the tiniest thing—like an election that was a response to Trump and the wave of white nationalism around the globe—emboldens them.

I have a few thoughts on this brigade that I need to get off my chest. First of all, reasonable people can disagree on whether or not Bernie would’ve won the General Election, I suppose.

You say: Bernie was a populist candidate and America was in a populist mood.
I say: Have you been paying attention to what’s going on out there? The rise of hate crimes and racist rhetoric? Do you really think that Trump’s win was all about economic populism? If so, I have some shares in Sears I’d like to sell you.

You say: Bernie is the most popular political candidate in America. The polls say so!
I say: So was Hillary Clinton right before she ran. Hmmm, what could the difference have been? You do realize that not a single negative ad was aired about Bernie, right? There was no Bernie oppo campaign. No mentions of his unemployment until 40, those weird, misogynist essays that he wrote in his 30s, his dalliances with Castro and other communists, his atheism, which even more than his Judaism, would freak the voters out. Quite the contrary, Karl Rove’s PAC bought ads FOR him.

You say: Hillary had so much baggage, she was bound to lose.
I say: Bernie had baggage too, see above. And Hillary’s so-called “baggage” was minor: A (very secure as it turned out) private email server, not completely different from the Blackberry Colin Powell used when he was SoS; some bad optics with Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton on a tarmac (oh, Bill); the Clinton Foundation, which certainly creates some potential conflicts of interest but is inarguably a force for good in this world.  The baggage came because of the excessive mischaracterization of her as corrupt and maybe even murderous, which came from several sources: the right, Russian propaganda, a clueless and compliant news media, and, mostly damningly, FRIENDLY FIRE from Sanders and Jill Stein supporters. (By the way, you played right into the hands of the Russians, who happily helped to widen that divide. Good job, everybody!)

Okay, but enough about that. Like I said, reasonable people can disagree. The question I kept asking myself is, Why are these people harping on the hypothetical of a Bernie win? We have a legit maniac in the White House, a constitutional crisis playing out right before our very eyes, who cares if the guy who lost the Democratic primary by 4 million votes MIGHT’VE won the General Election? He lost. This is the way politics in this country works. You have a primary, the winner of the primary moves on to the General Election. The winner of the General Election moves into the White House (God help us all). Right now, for example, we’re in the midst of the NBA finals, where the Cavaliers are getting thrashed by the Warriors. I haven’t seen a lot of “The Celtics Would’ve Won” memes.

And then it occurred to me: The Bernie Would’ve Won meme grows out of another false and, frankly, dangerous belief: That the primary was rigged.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Bernie Would’ve Wonners: The reason you keep inundating all of our Twitter timelines with this meme is because he think your guy was robbed. In your view, he should’ve been the candidate, rightly, and therefore it’s fair to continue to obsess on this point to punish those who sought to keep Sanders down. Have I got that right?

But here’s the thing: The primary was NOT rigged. It wasn’t. Go back and read the leaked DNC emails. Here’s what they showed: The DNC preferred Hillary. Big whoop. That was their prerogative, indeed, arguably their very reason for existing—to support the candidate they believed was best for the party and had the best chance to win. And it wasn’t just the DNC who preferred Hillary, mind you, it was virtually every Democratic senator and congressperson (and most newspapers, too.) And it’s not even slightly surprising when you consider that Bernie was an independent, who became a Democrat to get the full credibility and financial support of the party. Did you really think the DNC was going to prefer a Democratic carpetbagger?

So what did those leaked emails show? That one numbskull in the DNC wanted to use Sanders Jewish atheism against him—and was roundly ignored. That the DNC was getting impatient with Bernie when he refused to step down from his campaign, even when it was all but mathematically impossible for him to win. That Donna Brazille, in an overabundance of “helpfulness,” gave Hillary Clinton a debate question she surely knew was coming and on an issue Clinton already had mastery of. That’s it. If anything, Hillary was the one who was robbed. Caucuses massively favored Sanders because many of his supporters were young, unemployed and had the time to caucus. Plus, they were a rowdy, spirited group who could intimate other caucusers. In Washington, Hillary WON THE POPULAR VOTE but lost the caucus and that one still went on the ledger for Bernie. RIGGED!!

P.S. Don’t just take it from me, take it from Melissa Byrne, a former Bernie Sanders staffer:Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 12.38.01 PM

Look, Sanders exceeded expectations in the primary. It was exciting. It was fun. But he still lost by 4 million votes. That’s a lot! For the love of this country, and for your own sanity (and mine), LET IT GO.

 

Things I Blame For Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked

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Here is my response to the Slate article, “So We’re Still Blaming Jill Stein and James Comey, Huh?”

This is a partial list of the things I blame, ranked.
(As always, the opinions on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect my employers.)

1-199. MISOGYNY

This is why they chant “lock her up” and “Trump that bitch,” it’s why people can’t quite put a finger on it, but they just don’t like the cut of her jib. It’s why they see her as shrill and scolding and corrupt; not sufficiently warm, not the kind of person they want to grab a beer with. It’s why, following a tried-and-true pop culture paradigm—from Lady Macbeth to Claire Underwood—they see her as hungry for power and willing to do anything—even murder—to get what she wants. It’s why 2016’s answer to most election-related questions is, “It’s the misogyny, stupid!”

200. BERNIE SANDERS

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it. I think Sanders, who fortified the recurring narrative that Hillary was a corrupt neoliberal and part of a rigged system, did more damage than anyone else. He turned millions of young people against Hillary—and countless independents, no doubt, too.

Yes, he ultimately campaigned for Hillary, but did so half-heartedly, through pursed lips and slumped body language, bashing Trump but rarely praising Hillary. One could almost see the thought bubble over his head: “This should’ve been me.”

201.FAKE NEWS

This, like almost everything on this list, is a subset of the misogyny. But these were among the stories that were circulating on the web—and that people believed—about Hillary Clinton during the campaign.

  • She’s got Parkinson’s or MS and is covering it up.
  • She has a body double, whom she trots out when she is too ill to appear in public
  • She murdered a DNC staffer, among many others
  • She exchanged “signals” with Lester Holt from the debate stage.
  • She runs a child pedophilia ring out of pizza parlor in D.C. (No, really!)

I could go on…

202. JAMES COMEY

When FBI director James Comey announced that his office would not be filing charges against Hillary Clinton, he did it in the most scolding, damning language possible. His statement, where he called her “extremely careless,” was unprecedented. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign took this embarrassing public reproach and thanked him, happy the whole thing was behind them. Oh, if only they had been so lucky. Not content to have damaged her reputation with his public statement, Comey waited until 11 days before the election to announce that he was reopening the case, investigating new emails related to Anthony Weiner. (The Weiner bit was a particularly damning touch, reminding people of Bill’s infidelities.) As the Trump campaign celebrated and gloated— and Americans were essentially told: This is who Clinton is, a woman who will be forever dogged by scandal—a hasty release was issued a day before the election, clearing Clinton (again!) of all wrongdoing (the emails on Weiner’s server were duplicates). This was the biggest November Surprise in the history of November Surprises and it never should’ve happened.

203. RUSSIA/WIKILEAKS

I love how we’re all pretending that Russia didn’t have a clear horse in the race—Trump—and didn’t do everything in their power—hacking the DNC, hacking John Podesta, disseminating fake news—to get him elected. While we weren’t looking, Russia just won an information war against us.

204. THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Eventually, they got better at calling out Trump for his lies, incompetence, and corruption, but they continued to act as though Hillary’s emails were an equally big deal (they spent three times as much time discussing her emails as they did on all of her policy proposals combined), and continued to let Trump’s surrogates run roughshod over cable news, assassinating Hillary’s character (remember the handcuffs?) and lying about her, smugly, sanctimoniously, and with impunity. Quite simply, the media failed us.

205. JILL STEIN

That light-weight, publicity-seeking bourgeois hippie gave disenchanted Bernie or Busters a place for their protest vote, and continued the absurd narrative that Hillary was just as bad as Trump.

Yes, this matters, despite snide Slate articles suggesting otherwise:

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205a. You’re on my list too, Susan Sarandon.

206. THE 96 MILLION WHO DIDN’T VOTE

What the hell is wrong with you people?

207. VOTER SUPPRESSION

Some people who wanted to vote couldn’t. Without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans were able to suppress the vote in several key states.

208. HILLARY’S MESSAGE

Bernie made promises: Free college! Trump made promises: Build that wall! Save American jobs! But Hillary, a policy wonk who understands the nature of incremental change, could never bring herself to spout slogans. I don’t think she should’ve made false promises, necessarily, but perhaps a few concrete soundbites would’ve gone a long way.

209. HILLARY’S CAMPAIGN

They should’ve had her hold rallies in Wisconsin, ffs. They took their eye off the ball.

210. HILLARY’S SUPPORTERS

We took to the corners of the Internet for a variety of reasons—mostly because of (duh) the misogyny. But we should’ve been louder and prouder and worn our allegiance in public, shutting down the narrative that we were unenthusiastic. I was a pretty public supporter. But that being said, I can’t tell you how many times I expressed my devotion to Hillary—and my anger at the unfair, widespread anti-Hillary tactics—in a locked FB group when I should’ve been screaming it from the rafters.

Things I don’t blame:

1. HILLARY HERSELF.

She won every debate. She came up with well thought out, concrete plans to govern. She carried herself with dignity and grace, despite all the endless, misogynist shit that was hurled at her. She was nothing short of heroic.

2. IDENTITY POLITICS

Because seriously, fuck that.