Monday, May 5, 2014

Outside the Government: The Blind Banker

First off, I want to thank everybody for a fantastic first few days on the Last War in Albion Kickstarter. It's doing better than I'd imagined.

I wanted to throw another announcement of it out alongside a proper Eruditorum post so I could stress the fact that all Kickstarter backers get to read the Doctor Who-related project I'm working on as it's serialized. The first chapter of it is already up as a backer-exclusive update, and I should have the second one up soon.

I've also added a new reward tier - a full set of Eruditorum Press books (TARDIS Eruditorum 1-4 and A Golden Thread, along with the Last War in Albion book) in paperback. That's $100, but if you're quick and one of the first ten people to get over there, you can get it for $80.

If that's not enough to tempt you, I'm adding two unofficial stretch goals - if the Kickstarter can hit $6000 by the end of the week, I'll resume thrice weekly posting for the remaining Sarah Jane Adventures stories, thus getting to Season Six just a little bit faster. And if it makes it to $8000, I'll go thrice weekly for Miracle Day as well, shortening the mid-series gap for Season Six. I figure that while covering both is a necessary part of the blog, it's nobody except for the person who's going to pop up in comments objecting to this claim's favorite stretch, and we might as well give ourselves a way to make it go a bit faster.

It’s August 1st, 2010. The Wanted are at number one with “All Time Low,” with Swedish House Mafia, Eliza Doolittle, Katy Perry, Eminem, and Flo Rida also charting. In news, significant flooding takes place in China and Pakistan, and Chelsea Clinton gets married. 

While on television, Sherlock’s back for another round. First of all, it is customary to point out that The Blind Banker is an unfortunate piece of Yellow Peril adventuring that leaves more than a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth. There’s not a lot to say about this besides pointing out that it is precisely as racist as you would expect from something overseen by two people who think there’s not really anything wrong with The Talons of Weng-Chiang besides the rat. But whereas that story at least makes sentences beginning “other than the racism” understandable, if not necessarily advisable, this one misses the “be really brilliant” part of the equation and ends up as the consensus crap episode of Sherlock.

That said, the reason it’s crap isn’t that it’s racist, but rather that it’s a fundamentally misconceived episode that doesn’t understand what show it’s a part of. This is actually more understandable than it sounds - I would bet good money that a sixty minute draft of this script existed. It is thus the one episode of Sherlock that unabashedly treats the show as though it’s a standard issue case-of-the-week show in which the point is to solve the mystery, tease the season finale, and cut to credits.

Its first problem, and by no means its only one, is that it’s ninety minutes long. Where A Study in Pink grafted on an extra half hour by adding the Mycroft/Moriarty feint and the “rache” business, both of which amped up the degree to which the episode was an engagement with the larger corpus of Sherlock Holmes and which thus made the episode feel genuinely bigger and weightier, The Blind Banker spins out… well, we can’t know exactly which thirty minutes of this were the padding, but it’s clearly something. My money would be on the entire Soo Lin Yao plot, personally, but the really damning thing is that it hardly matters. All that’s added is an extra thirty minutes of solving the case, because all this episode has to go on is solving the case. 

It’s not, of course, that mysteries and procedurals can’t work. I love a good procedural. And much as this is a poor episode of Sherlock, it’s a functional if padded procedural. The underlying mystery isn’t a great one, but it works without major error. But fundamentally, the plot only ever advances when Sherlock figures something out that the audience had no cluing for. The fact that the entire episode is based around a code is frustrating, as the audience is left staring at an implacable wall, where last week the entire spark of the episode came from the fact that there wasn’t a wall around the bulk of the mystery.

Perhaps the real basis for comparison is the villain, since both A Study in Pink and The Blind Banker hinge on the reveal of a villain whose first appearance is their reveal as the villain. But A Study in Pink overtly hides the mystery in plain sight, flagging the killer as “invisible” and turning the question to the nature of his invisibility. By the time he shows up the question isn’t “who is he” but “why can’t we see him,” and the answer - “because he’s a cabbie” - is satisfying, especially because it’s been threaded through that specific scene via the repeated intrusion of the “your taxi’s here” bit. So when we finally grasp that the cab outside Baker Street is the killer the effect is of something moving into focus. None of that infrastructure is present for the equivalent reveal in The Blind Banker, however. Like the solution to the code, it’s not something coming into focus but a wall coming down revealing what we were forbidden from seeing previously. It’s not so much plot advancement as the removal of plot hinderance.

In a proper procedural, where the pleasure comes in a formulaic adventure being delivered on a reliable schedule, this sort of thing works. But the 3x90 setup of Sherlock cuts dramatically against this approach. The “three movies in two weeks” structure demands that each episode be singular and unusual. There’s neither time for Sherlock to establish what an ordinary episode is nor time to waste being ordinary in the first place. Which is where The Blind Banker really falls down. As a second episode of a television series it’s perfectly fine - it demonstrates business as usual and is at least at a baseline level of competence, if not much above that. Usually in the first few episodes of a new series there’s at least one dud where the show learns a few things to avoid, and The Blind Banker is clearly it. This wouldn’t even be particularly worth remarking upon were it not for the fact that the three episode seasons don’t give weak episodes the space to hide. 

But this isn’t even particularly interesting as a failure. It’s an unambitious episode from start to finish. Steve Thompson’s primary virtue as a writer is visibly that he doesn’t seem to mind being rewritten by better writers, a virtue that does not appear to be in play here. This script was never meant to be a singular anchor between a big season premiere and an equally big season finale. It’s a slender bit of fluff that’s been pressed into service as something far, far bigger than it can hope to manage. Notably, it’s clear that the other Sherlock script that’s attributed soley to Thompson has blatantly been completely rewritten by Moffat, and that in Season Three they give up all pretense that Thompson’s job is to do anything more than make writing the third episode a little faster by giving Gatiss and Moffat a script to revise. Which, for a 3x90 show in which every episode has to be huge, is the right way to do it. Sherlock isn’t a show that can afford a second tier writer’s existence.

But for all of this, it’s easy to understand why they tried. The ninety minute episode structure is very strange, and surely took some getting used to. Of course they tried to get away with padding one of their existing plots from when the show was to have sixty minute episodes into a ninety minute one. And sure enough, they learned from it not working - never again is the middle episode a bit of disposable fluff between the two “real” episodes, and never again is there a story quite so consumed with the raw mechanics of solving a mystery as this one.

And for all of this, there are moments of real cleverness. Everybody who's worked on this after the writing took place has given it their all. There's still a spring in the program's step and a real sense of excitement over the fact that it's not just another procedural, it's Sherlock Holmes. The party is perhaps irrevocably spoiled by the fact that it's just another procedural, but these things happen.

But unfortunately, that’s about all there is to say about The Blind Banker. It’s an inevitable and uninteresting mistake that compounds its necessary failures with a steaming pile of racism. This, ultimately, becomes the really inscrutable thing about the episode. Its mediocrity was perhaps necessary, but why it had to be mediocre while simultaneously harkening back to old racist fears about vast and unstoppable syndicates of Chinese gangsters led by mysterious overlords is an enduring mystery. The answer is surely simple enough - this really is a television series made by two people who think The Talons of Weng-Chiang is something to pay homage to instead of to guiltily acknowledge the good points of. But this failure takes an episode that could have been forgettable and instead goes that extra mile to make it absolutely awful. 


And with that we’re done. Miles under the usual word count, but you know what? I’m getting too old to spend 2000 words on television that deserves to be forgotten.

39 comments:

  1. I am looking forward to Sarah Jane and Torchwood posts.

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  2. First time I've ever commented on one of these blogs, have enjoyed reading for a while - I agree with most of this - the only thing that can be really said in this episode's favour is that it can be bearable to sit through on a full series rewatch. Otherwise, as Phil says, it's the episode of Sherlock that sadly manages to employ racist tropes while being disappointingly mediocre.

    That said, I am interested in the role of Steven Thompson as a writer - both for Sherlock and Doctor Who. He works well on Sherlock, basically because of the reasons given in the essay. That said, I don't get why they keep bringing him back to Doctor Who - he basically got promoted to writing two episodes for Season Eight after 'Curse of the Black Spot' and 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS'. I know some people liked 'JTTCOTT', but for me it was no better than 'Curse'. I don't hate Thompson, and I'm sure there are sensible production related reasons he's on the writing team. But it still frustrates me that he has two episodes next Season that could be written by a writer i find more interesting, like Whithouse, Gaiman or Neil Cross. Hell, they could even give one of those episodes to a woman. Debbie Moon, Head writer of the excellent CBBC series 'Wolfblood' would be a good choice, IMO - she's expressed an interest in writing for Doctor Who before, and while she's arguably less experienced than some would see as ideal, I'd rather take a chance on her than Thompson.

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    1. Thompson is likely seen as a safe pair of hands who can turn in a competently written piece of television. Moffat knows how much rewriting will be needed, and can plan around that. Considering Moffat is balancing the incredible workload that comes from showrunning the BBC's flagship program, along with Sherlock, I can him not wanting to take any chances.

      That being said, I would rather see someone altogether more interesting take over at least one of his scripts. The Black Spot is just so forgettable I don't have an overwhelming amount of faith that both of his season 8 scripts will be any good. I'd rather some Rob Shearman (Or Gareth Roberts, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss) rather than more Thompson.

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    2. Debbie Moon should be writing DW.

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    3. Did I read recently that when asked their favorite non-Moffat writer on Doctor Who, Karen Gillan cited Thompson? I was trying to think what might have led her to feel that way -- maybe she liked getting to dress up as a pirate? Or maybe Thompson is just the nicest man in the world and an endless pleasure to grab a drink with.

      Smith said Gareth Roberts, which makes perfect sense to me.

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    4. I was at that panel. She said that it had just been a great deal of fun.

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    5. @jonathon inge @Theonlyspiral In all honesty, I think I'm underselling Debbie Moon - Wolfblood's genre TV pitched at the same age range as The Sarah Jane Adventures, and I'd say it's just as good. I'd be more hopeful about the potential quality of a script from her than Thompson (I've given my thoughts on his previous work above).

      That said, I do see Theonlyspiral's point about the practicals of getting Thompson to write. He is, after all, a known quantity. And it is worth acknowledging that, in Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness Moffat has hired two new writers who have great credentials and could be genuinely interesting.

      The trouble, I don't see him as a safe, if unspectacular writer - that's how I think of Mark Gatiss (at least with his Doctor Who work). I see Thompson as someone I can rely on to write a poor - to mediocre script that takes the place of a script that could have come from a better, more interesting writer.

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    6. I think you guys are being perhaps a little hard on Thompson. I'll go over what I've seen of his work:
      - Curse of the Black Spot - a catastrophe and the worst New Who episode.
      - the Blind Banker - boring and racist.
      - Journey to the Center of the TARDIS - quite enjoyable and well paced.
      - the Reichenbach Fall - very good.
      - whatever part of the Sign of Three he wrote - solid, because I didn't dislike any parts of that episode to my memory.

      So what we have, at least it looks like to me, is someone who fails to write a good first script for a given show but delivers afterwards.

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    7. I did acknowledge that quite a few people see 'Journey' as a good story - I don't think it will end up on many 'Bottom Ten' lists, I just have a strong personal dislike for the episode myself - it's probably my least favourite story of Season Seven.

      @Callum - You make a good case for Thompson as a writer who improves with practice (heck, most writers should), and it's very valid to view him as such. The problem for me is that I don't 'Journey' as much of an improvement on 'Curse', so I don't think he's getting better at writing Who. As for Sherlock, I think his role on that show - the writer who gets rewritten - has become more defined (and more openly acknowledged) as the series has gone on. 'The Sign of Three' and 'The Reichenbach Fall' are two of my favourite Sherlock episodes, but one is an openly co - authored story and the other is so good most people (Phil included, it seems) don't seem to believe it was a purely Thompson script.

      That said, I am being too harsh on Thompson - I'll never even be a "Second tier" writer, and drunk Sherlock (which Moffat and Gatiss have said was one of Thompson's scenes) left me in hysterics. I'm still holding out hope that his next doctor Who episodes will be good - I definitely don't want to assume I won't like them and work off confirmation bias when I start nitpicking flaws - that would be no fun at all.

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    8. Philip seems to be implying above that "The Reichenbach Fall" was extensively rewritten by Moffat. I quite like "The Sign of Three" as well, but if you forced me to choose whether to rewatch "Curse of the Black Spot" and "Journey to the Center of the TARDIS" I'd have a hard time of it. They're both awful as far as I'm concerned, and that doesn't leave Thompson a very promising record. But to be fair, his resume is quite a bit shorter than that of Moffat and, I believe, Gatiss. I don't really like his work, but I'd be happy to tack a "yet" onto the end of it.

      And to be even fairer, he's written a whole lot more television than I have, so who am I to say? I just know what I like, and that's about it.

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    9. ScarvesandCelery, jinx! You owe me a Coke.

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    10. I've never understood the hate for "Curse of the Black Spot." It's not one of my favourites, but it's solid, and the Siren is appropriately haunting.

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    11. Yes, Black Spot is a serviceable episode and the hatred for it is bizarre. (I certainly prefer it to Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, speaking of racism.)

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    12. You are implying, presumably, that JTTCOTT is racist? Why? just because it of the three black characters in it, two of them aren't 'good guys'?

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    13. Having recently rewatched "Black Spot," I have a very hard time with the idea that it's a "catastrophe." It's not by any means a *good* episode, but it's totally bland and inoffensive.

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  3. There is one redemptive reading of The Blind Banker that you miss: it could be read as an exorcism of the worst of the Doyle themes from his Holmes canon. It touches on one of the main themes that runs through Doyle's Holmes work, that of those travelling abroad bringing back something "evil" with them. To be fair, this in itself could be read as a criticism of the British Empire of the times, as the evil brought back is usually governed by greed and revenge extracted by other British characters (most famously, Jonathan Small who is betrayed by his fellow countrymen in Sign of Four). And this in itself could be a reference to one of Doyle's influences, Wilkie Collins The Moonstone, which is very much the template for Holmes' imperial adventures.

    This, alongside that other Doyle favourite,the seemingly impenetrable code, seem to indicate that part of the problem with the Blind Banker is that it doesn't really know what sort of tv show it is yet. Thompson seems to think that it is a pastiche of the Doyle works, without having the cleverness of either of his co-writers. Of course, by the series end it's obvious that the point of Sherlock is to deconstruct all Holmes fiction, whether by Doyle or since. Had the series and its creators known this, then I feel that it would have been possible to rewrite The Blind Banker so to remove the Talons problem. But as it stands, it really deserves to be known as the Sherlock story that simply doesn't work...*

    Not that that meant it wasn't well received by tv reviewers on first transmission. Which says something in itself.

    (* and this is exacerbated by Euros Lynn's direction: not actually bad, but once again at odds with the directorial vision either side of him. One wonders whether The Blind Banker, as well as being written when Sherlock was being planned as 6x60 minute stories, was directed using Coky Giedroyc's original version of A Study In Pink as its visual template)

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    1. a dark secret... from the colonies?!

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    2. I had a similar response, but didn't take it all the way to a redemptive reading: It seems to me that one thing Sherlock is very good at is taking Doylean stuff and transplanting it into something like what it must have been when it first came out--Gatiss talks about fetishising 21st C London like Doyle fetishised Victorian London, and that's about right. The problem with TBB isn't that they try to recreate a Doyle effect and do it badly--it's that they try and succeed to produce something exactly like a Sherlock Holmes story, without stopping to consider whether it's a good idea or not.

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    3. ...in other words, precisely what you say in the second paragraph: "Thompson seems to think that it is a pastiche of the Doyle works, without having the cleverness of either of his co-writers." Exactly so.

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  4. Well that was straightforward.

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  5. I found myself puzzled that Sherlock Holmes, of all people on the planet, wouldn't recognize the code at first glance. Or, for that matter, that he wasn't alone in the apartment. It seemed like a real misstep in characterization. You know, to go along with all the other missteps in the episode.

    Just about the only bit I really enjoy just on its own merits is the build-up to the gag where they think that Watson's Sherlock. Especially the clip of him outside the above-mentioned apartment.

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    1. Yep, compare with "The Valley of Fear" where Holmes identifies that it's a book-based cypher as soon as he sees it, then spends a handful of paragraphs narrowing down books, then moves on to the next bit.

      It's astonishing that a Moffat-run programme finds itself slowing down a plot point from a Victorian novel.

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  6. That's that one out of the way then.

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  7. The thing that most baffled me about the episode - beyond the horrible Yellow Peril stuff - was that I couldn't work out what story it was. "The Dancing Men", presumably, but there were also bits of "Sign of Four" and possibly "The Valley of Fear". And none of them seemed to fit together properly.

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  8. Moffat actually likes the rat. In his interview on the Tom Baker era on the BBC website, he says he thinks it's intentionally comic.

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    1. If that's true then he's mellowed in middle age,or he's changing his tune to toe the party line - in the 1990s he infamously gave an interview where he rubbishes Holmes as a hack and says that any decent writer would have known they couldn't achieve a believable rat on that budget.

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    2. The big problem with the rat was that they tried to make it look realistic and only made it look adorable. They should have said that the not only made animals grow but also deformed them and then made the thing look like a cancer laden monstrosity... which they could have achieved with careful application of bubble-wrap.

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    3. Point of order: It wasn't an interview, it was a discussion before which all involved had been drinking.

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    4. This is why I'm glad I saw so many classic Who stories after having read the novelisations. The book scared the crap out of me as a kid -- I was looking for Mr. Sin in every cupboard and behind every door for a while. And the rat in my imagination looked pretty frightening, though honestly it was far from the most memorable aspect of the story for me, so even in the televised version I find it incredibly easy to overlook.

      Let's be honest: the rat still looks fantastic compared to the Shrivenzale. Or, I'm sorry, the Wirrrn larva. The party line on "The Ark in Space" is that Kenton Moore sells the bubble wrap, but...well, he does his best. In theory, a rat in the sewers you can barely see in the gloom could have worked fine. The voracious Muppet of Ribos and the packing material inchworm are the real crazytown ideas and they're both brightly lit. We just pretend they're better than the Myrka because they're part of such otherwise distinguished scripts.

      I'm trying to think of a Holmes script that includes a full-on monster (something that doesn't talk but basically exists to go rarrrr and chase people around) where the monster doesn't look a joke. To my surprise I think Kroll might actually be the best of them, followed I guess by the Drashigs. I do agree that any reasonable viewer of the classic series should be able to look past such things, and ought at least to try, but they do make it challenging at times.

      To be relevant: "The Blind Banker" is sort of the Shrivenzale of Sherlock. It looks terrible, and we would have been much better off without it, but on the other hand, at least everything around it looks like it was made for grownups.

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    5. Oddly, the Doomwatch episode "Tomorrow, the Rat" is quite effective, despite the less-than-convincing rats involved. It also benefits from possibly the best episode title ever, except perhaps for "Sex and Violence",

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    6. And Phil is mixing up his showrunners; it's actually Davies who unapologetically loves "The Talons of Weng-Chiang".

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  9. Okay, all of the Series Six talk got me excited again and now I'm wondering if you're going to do 'Let's Kill Hitler' instead of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, because while I was surprised that you ran with A Good Man Goes to War instead of Angels Take Manhattan, I think I'm starting to get a sense of the pattern here, sort of. Unless I'm wrong and it's the Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone two-parter. Oh, boy...(but definitely not Wedding of River Song yet, right? Right?)

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  10. Awesome, awesome, awesome! Managed to sneak in to be one of the ten to get the discounted new tier reward! I have to say, I haven't been particularly interested in the Last War in Albion posts (although, to be fair I haven't given them a fair go...the last one was interesting)...but the secret Who project has me excited!

    To stay on topic...maybe it's me, but I find it amazing how clearly desensitised I've become to depictions of racism (or any other "isms" for that matter) - I didn't even pick up on how racist this episode of Sherlock was on first watch. But I did, thankfully, spot it on watching 'Talons' many moons ago.

    Just out of interest, were the racist elements removed from the 'Talons' Big Finish Audio pre/sequel released last year?

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  11. I assumed that the Yellow Peril elements of the Blind Banker were essentially reflecting the modern Yellow Peril hysteria. In a sense it parallels the way Watson was able to have returned from another disastrous war in Afghanistan. The difference being that the latter operates as a critique of foreign policy, while the former can just be taken as old-fashioned racism on the part of the writer.

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    1. Pedantically, from the British imperial point of view the Second Afghan War was a clear and enduring success, after some hiccups along the way (only the First actually comes anywhere near matching the standard folk-history narrative, and even that in a somewhat more nuanced way than generally recognised).

      More to the point, I don't think the fact of having Watson back from Afghanistan again can really be considered any kind of commentary on anything - I mean, who on earth would not make use of that circumstance when updating this story at that time? Something so compulsory cannot signify anything much through its mere presence. And given that war's psychological impact on him (the only way it really impinges before The Sign of Three) is not distress, brutalisation or bitterness but a yearning to experience its thrills again, the specific way it's played doesn't amount to much of a critique either.

      Not that it had any need to, given the general consensus perception of that mess, at the time of broadcast and subsequently.

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    2. Actually, it arguably reads more easily as a critique of critiques of war - the (female) psychiatrist (insert trendy lefty mumbo-jumbo hippy liberal basket-weaving etc epithets from your preferred edition of the Sun here) automatically jumps to the conclusion that he's traumatised by the experience (hah! She would, right?), but really he's just itching for more adventure. Boys will be boys, right?

      Now, I don't think it was intended that way, and I don't think it actually comes across that way, especially given the suggestions that this tendency is somewhat unhealthy (though ultimately presented more as an eccentricity than a major flaw, and certainly one that is convenient for those enjoying the tales of adventure). But it's closer to that than to the reverse.

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    3. There's also the exchange: "That's the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done." / "You invaded Afghanistan!"

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