The real problem we face when thinking about “Game of Thrones” is that we’re not willing to face up to evil. All the swagger of massive budgets, sprawling stories, and lavish everything turns out to be polished mediocrity. What we call glamor. All the plaudits the show is receiving are to some degree invested in missing this problem. It’s such a phenomenon, you cannot blame writer George R.R. Martin for it. He only gave bitter satisfaction to an audience not of his own creation. And the audience, it turns out, cannot get enough of the fake realism he’s selling.
“Game of Thrones” is famous for a “what you see is what you get” claim to authenticity. You get human nature red in tooth and claw. Nakedly savage in lust—naked to savagery in hatred. The rule is, if you want to do good, you’ll die, and you’ll deserve it.
So let’s start with this supposed attack on idealism and see how realistic it really is.
Throughout the show, noble idealists who don’t look or act like clever, knowing liberals are constantly slaughtered for the pleasure of the audience. Sure, we’re all shocked that good people are killed. But we keep coming back for more. There’s no secret wish there? No desire to be done with anyone who’s trying to be protective or concerned about community?
This is supposed to be the usual self-flattery: Americans watching others’ suffering, the better to enjoy their own safety and comfort. But in reality, the audiences’ pleasure comes from something other than witnessing the corruption and self-destruction of pre-modern, pre-scientific, pre-democratic regimes. It comes from the destruction of people who, unlike the radically individualistic, define themselves by helping others and living in some relation to them. It’s not the ugly exploitation that’s an object of hatred—secretly, it’s the classy people. The immorality is the side dish in this meal. It’s not orgies that close out the seasons, after all: the endings have been almost ritually premised on the sacrifice of these noble fools.
How Joseph Campbell Transformed Our Television
Well, how did we end up so soured on idealism? How did the age of Obama produce such sarcastic, cynical stuff? It’s time to read up on the worst delusion in story-telling in our times: Joseph Campbell. He more or less set this ball rolling with his “Hero With A Thousand Faces.” He was a man trapped in the American myth that ended up as the national con: self-help. He explained to America that all hero stories are basically the same story, none of which must feature bloody murder or sacrifice. A people living in comfortable suburbia could buy the idea that there’s a way to success, fulfillment, and plaudits that excludes the ugly facts of life. Perhaps you can have it all.
But things did not work out, in life or story. Cynicism is the natural consequence of idealism, and cruelty the necessary attendant on sentimentality. People were sold on the secret hope that desire could be separated from the situations that show how it matters to us and why. Anything could become meaningful in an abstract quest. Heroism could be a lifestyle—and it would be easy. As an added bonus, individualism meant that others couldn’t judge you in the process. Surely, that’s the way to get happy: materialism was always there to helpfully ignore the dark stirrings in the soul.
But then, Americans did not turn happy. And many of them turned to exquisite cruelty for fun, and to extravagant nightmares for their political education. “Game of Thrones” just put serial killer fantasies, mobster fantasies, and any number of other genres together.
Television For A Post-Therapeutic Culture
The Nineties did not end with great, if greatly idiosyncratic lifestyle art. Nor did it end with a fun popular culture. The prospering classes that have been the audience of each new vehicle in this announced Golden Age of TV—from HBO to Netflix’s internet series—are not looking for pleasure, except in that which they dare not name-evil. Success does not come to shows about happiness and life-affirmation. It comes to the ugliest, most horrific things ever put on American screens.
Fear sells. And what do today’s audiences want to fear? Some image of evil returning to haunt them. Evil was supposed to be banished by liberal politics and psychology. Medicated, if necessary. But instead it returns in every new show about slaughter and monsters, in wildly uncomprehending ways that nevertheless try to make sense of it all for people who cannot face it otherwise.
So audiences spellbound by “Game of Thrones” are not finding a way to deal with evil. For one thing, as I said, there is always the tendency to scapegoat someone—pretty much each season ends with the ritual sacrifice of a noble man. But slowly, even the surviving wretches of once-proud immoralists in the story are turning moralistic. The arc of history may not bend toward justice, but it does bend toward a simulacrum of realism. Audiences are shown moral monsters gradually humbled into some kind of compromise with morality. The hope that being clever is better than being moral is gradually beaten down by unremitting ugliness.
But this is not a new birth of morality. It’s just the contrast with even uglier murders and mutilations and monsters. The cynical characters are waking up to ugliness even more hopeless than their own. Then it’s not fun anymore. This is literally how the story works over its many seasons.
‘Game of Thrones’ Isn’t Just Hard-Boiled Realism
So there is no new political ground within the story which would allow for resolution to the intrigue and self-destruction of these characters. The moral-political logic is some kind of democracy-in-process. Even with supposedly sophisticated writers, that’s inevitable—this is America, after all. A fight for freedom, the liberation of slaves, and standing up together against some dreaded, stylized, rarely noticeable evil: these all point in that direction. So does the self-destruction of the ruling classes, for all their soap-opera intrigues and assignations.
Of course, you may have noticed that the whole conceit of the show—ice zombies fighting fire-breathing dragons—is mostly not happening. As a Ragnarok, an end of the world confrontation of demonic and divine forces in which we are mere spectators, it fails to attract—much less satisfy—the imagination. Admittedly, this was always going to be hard to pull off. This was supposed to be political ugliness without salvation-by-magic. None of that Tolkien moralism. But then there’s none of Tolkien’s wisdom about what evil really means, either.
As for the magical wish fulfillment, when the resurrections of irreplaceable characters start happening a bit past the halfway point of the story, the bad writing becomes hilarious—hilariously naïve, too. That’s when everyone should start noticing that the fake resurrections are about as arbitrary as any number of the deaths. For all the supposed hard-boiled realism of “Game of Thrones,” it is as moralistic as anything else. Slap other colors on it and call it Disney, because you know how it must end. After all, the audience cannot be pushed too far.
We’re Corpses Seeking Salvation
These conceits and mistakes are just a way to avoid the real question of the plot—the question of evil and therefore of divine law. There is a bit of religious fanaticism in one of the show’s humiliation sub-plots, and a bit more religious fanaticism in a very contained way in another subplot—tied up with the resurrections. But mostly, religion has been avoided—because it scares liberals more than dragons do. At this point, our prestige television audience has literally reverted to mental childhood. We cannot tolerate religion, but the zombies are inescapable. We cannot tolerate thoughts of providence. It’s gotta look like a superpower.
But simply as a matter of hard-headed realism, the move to bring dragons to fight with the zombies depends on fanatical loyalty. It’s just presented in as atheistic a way as possible, while being about the liberation of untold numbers of slaves, for example. You can have endless shamelessness about violating human bodies in modern prestige TV, but you have to put as many veils as possible between religion and the audience. In a strange way, this gets the hierarchy of the vulgar and the holy right.
Well, let’s at least remove one more of these veils. If you wonder who the show’s zombies are, they are us. Not just literally—people, like you and me—but allegorically. We have learned as audiences that we are not privileged. If life is not providential, if our minds cannot conquer our materialism, and if we can’t protect our bodies from the fantasy of endless violation—then what are but zombies? We are back to our Christian moralism and we don’t know it. Corpses seeking salvation.